Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' by The Streets.
Having gained the respect of jungle and garage heads alike with the inimitable flow and singular production style displayed on cult classic debut 'Original Pirate Material' - The Streets' sophomore effort 'A Grand Don’t Come For Free' catapulted Mike Skinner to a new level of commercial success and firmly cemented his place in the hearts and minds of the jack-the-lad lairy geezers his music sought to represent from the get go.
Like its predecessor, the record features a variety of musical styles that sound cohesive in the context of Skinner’s auteur-like approach to production – he was heavily involved in the mixing and mastering stages of the record alongside his work as a writer and producer.
The sense of cohesion is further buoyed by the narrative Skinner carries throughout the record – making 'A Grand' quite possibly the only and most certainly the best garage-adjacent UK rap opera.
The album opens with the pseudo-orchestral grandiosity of It Was Supposed To Be So Easy as Mike introduces us to the album's protagonist – a young Brummie man who returns home from work to find he has misplaced the eponymous grand. Mike bends and twists syllables to match his unconventional flow while the track’s synth brass section booms away behind him.
The greatest strength of 'A Grand' comes in the form of the unparalleled ease with which Mike blends his keen eye for detail, his penchant for observational humour and his love for the language of the everyday all while retaining the emotional resonance of the yarn he spins for the listener.
Throughout the record’s eleven tracks Mike’s narrative is adorned with references to life as a working-class young person in the UK – from picking up dating tips on ITV, to placing all your hopes on a betting slip to the weekend battle of wits between bouncer and chemically altered punter.
The album’s most commercially successful singles are the boozy lad’s holiday anthem Fit But You Know It and the most tender ode to post-breakup brotherly solidarity FHM culture could produce, Dry Your Eyes Mate – the duality of the geezer.
Although the former has the dubious distinction of a Danny Dyer cameo in its video, the latter is quite possibly the best example of Mike’s complexity as both a writer and a producer with Skinner waxing poetic over sombre acoustic guitar strums and tear-jerking strings, bringing the record’s narrative to its emotional climax.
Despite most of the album’s tracks falling outside Grime’s 140 BPM jurisdiction, 'A Grand Don’t Come For Free' holds a special status in the culture which was further secured through subsequently released album cut remixes featuring pioneering East London MCs such as Kano and D Double E.
Possibly the album’s closest flirtation with the Grime sound that was reaching its zenith around the time is Blinded By The Lights. The track’s sparse, syncopated step beat and happy hardcore synth riff have granted it Pulse X tier legendary riddim status in UK urban culture – soundtracking both the era defining film 'Kidulthood' as well as the best back of the bus freestyle sessions Sony Erikson speakers could facilitate.
Despite Mike’s aesthetic and lyrical affinity for working-class British life, his writing on 'A Grand' displays his gift for capturing a certain universality of experience within the hyper-specific anecdotes he presents - a skill which has extended Skinner’s influence to the unlikeliest of spheres.
Detroit MC Danny Brown has cited the album as key to his creative development and argues the sounds heard on 'A Grand' were just as instrumental in shaping his musical taste as the ghetto-tek he grew up around. Mike’s vérité lyricism has also gotten props from outside the hip-hop world, with a teenage King Krule interpolating the album’s closing track Empty Cans on his brooding guitar anthem Easy Easy.
On 'A Grand Don’t Come For Free' Mike Skinner captures the mundanity of everyday life with Ken Loach levels of accuracy - his less heralded but endlessly endearing musical composition skills however, don’t let us forget there’s beauty to be found in even the least remarkable days.