Superstars back home and cult artists in the U.S., Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) and his younger colleague Dylan Mills (aka Dizzee Rascal) are the biggest names associated with the makeshift British musical genre generally called grime. Ostensibly a collision between Jamaican dancehall and English rave music, grime is a hip-hop doppelganger even if it isn't quite the thing itself: Both can be boiled down to rhyming over beats.
The Streets' 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, which introduced grime to the U.S., signified as hip-hop by way of Dickens. A pop record of tangible literary value, it was a dense, witty tour of British flat-rat culture whose cheap, homemade beats and often comical viewpoint launched Skinner as one of pop music's most compelling new voices.
But if Original Pirate Material was akin to a collection of short stories -- self-contained explorations of such nightlife subjects as rave culture, late-night diners, and boozy brawls --Skinner's follow-up, the recently released A Grand Don't Come for Free, is an attempt at pop album as novel -- or audio book.
A linear narrative that snakes through 11 individual songs, A Grand Don't Come for Free isn't as suitable for background music as its predecessor, mostly because Skinner's insistence on getting his story across results in less intrusive music. Save the blaring rock-oriented single "Fit But You Know It," A Grand Don't Come For Free relies on a musical mix of soft beats and Casio piano chords for a bare foundation on which Skinner weaves his first-person tale of financial and romantic woes.
The part of the story about missing savings (the "grand" of the title) can be a little hard to follow, but the relationship songs at the core form a sure romantic arc: "Could Well Be In" (meeting), "Blinded by the Lights" (tentative courtship), "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" (contentment), "Get Out of My House" (quarrel), "Fit But You Know It" (cheating), "Such a Twit" (regret), "Dry Your Eyes" (break-up).
If this seems a little mundane, well, that's precisely the point. What's special about A Grand Don't Come for Free is the poetry it finds in the nearly real-time depiction of everyday moments. A love song about coming to the realization that you'd rather lie on the couch at your girl's house watching TV than go boozing with your mates speaks the kind of common truth rarely heard in a pop song. And when it sounds like Smokey Robinson or the Chi-Lites, Valhalla awaits.
Original Pirate Material was a crucial youth-culture album (in Brit terms, kind of a more soulful musical equivalent to Trainspotting). A Grand Don't Come for Free feels more grown-up, more settled, less connected to the nightlife-oriented musical culture that Skinner once represented.
But if Skinner is sidestepping grime, never mind hip-hop, Dizzee Rascal would like nothing more than to grab the American brass ring. If the teen rapper's debut, Boy in Da Corner, was the rowdier little brother to Original Pirate Material in its cultural specificity, his follow-up, the newly released Showtime, is a different sort of departure. Dizzee isn't growing up so much as growing out, embracing hip-hop as a global culture.
Dizzee seems to idolize Jay-Z, whom he's opened for in England, and he makes it plain on Showtime where his musical allegiances lie ("I'm ain't into rave/I'm into 'get paid'"). But the American rapper that this very English MC really evokes is the late Notorious B.I.G. As Biggie did for his Brooklyn, Dizzee makes the East London neighborhood Bow into a place that feels real even if you've never been there. In both men, standard-issue hip-hop bluster is balanced by sharp, regretful reportage, the cold-eyed threat of violence informed by a menacing sense of humor and everything made stronger and more purposeful by a foundation of generosity.
On "Things Done Changed," Biggie rapped, "Back in the day our parents used to take care of us/Look at 'em now, they're even fuckin' scared of us." Just as Biggie used the collective "us" instead of the individualistic "me," Dizzee Rascal tends to use "we" instead of "I" when talking about the rougher side of life in the Bow. The we-shall-overcome culmination of the record's frequent underclass exhortations comes on "Get By," where Dizzee stops in the middle of a street fight: "What's it all about? I ask myself before I swing/More time I'm beefing over every little thing/Beefing every area, region, or vicinity/My ghetto frame of mind makes me prone to hostility/To my Britons locked up/To my young baby mothers/To each and every creed and color, ghetto sisters and brothers/If you know you're from the slums keep reppin' no doubt/Stay ghetto if you must, just remember to get out."
And getting out is partly what Showtime is about. Boy in Da Corner, recorded when Dizzee was 17-years-old, much of it supposedly done solo on a personal computer, was grounded in a specific place. It was the sound of a kid whose world ended at the end of the block but who knew the landscape intimately. Showtime is an after-the-goldrush album from a kid who's now shared stages with Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, toured the States, done countless interviews, filmed a video at an Atlanta strip club. It's a record that's local and global at the same time. As Dizzee raps at the end of "Dream": "Big shout to world 'cause I been all around/And when I'm gone I'm always thinking 'bout my hometown/I'm from the LDN, there's no forgetting that/And the big U.K., I stay reppin' that."
Perhaps as a result, Showtime isn't as lyrically focused song-for-song as Boy in Da Corner, but it might be deeper musically. Grime is music from another world already --percussive, buzzing stuff that sounds alternately like hornets trapped in a soda can or baseballs spinning around in a clothes dryer. But Showtime is more varied and more weird: clanging Asian nods on "Learn," woozy, syrupy riddims on "Graftin'," heavy, almost bongo-like beats on "Everywhere." The lead single, "Stand Up Tall," is disarming in its utter oddness. Grounded in synthetic beats and a keyboard hook that could be sampled from an Atari 2600 game, the chorus rides on a new-wave rhythm that could be the Thompson Twins or Men at Work before exploding into chaotic turntable scratching. And all of these sonic assaults find a match in Dizzee's increasingly virtuosic raps. His squawky, cartoonish flow still sounds like the hip-hop equivalent of one of Donald Duck's nephews, but his vocal confidence has grown considerably on this record.
But as magnificent as Showtime is, one still suspects that Dizzee's brogue is too thick and his perspective (and, perhaps more importantly, his vernacular) too foreign to cross over to mainstream American hip-hop. A Lil' Jon production or Ludacris cameo might not even help, though it'd be great to find out. But if Dizzee will never match the commercial heights of his American heroes, hopefully he'll be content with matching Skinner's self-prophecy from Original Pirate Material: "Cult classic, not bestseller."