If hip hop is about representing your local culture on a global scale -- something it's become over the course of its 25-year journey from New York block-party entertainment to the dominant form of pop music -- then Original Pirate Material, the debut album from the Streets, aka 23-year-old British MC and producer Mike Skinner, is true hip hop.
Original Pirate Material doesn't sound much like American hip hop. Skinner's competent vocals are generally a flat, deadpan brogue, with little of the playful or complex technique that marks the best American rappers. The music has more in common with Euro-identified techno subgenres such as jungle, garage, and drum 'n' bass than with the more assertively funky boom-bap of African-American music-makers. And Skinner seems even less concerned about appropriating the attitude and style of American hip hop than he does about copying the sound. "I'm just spitting," Skinner raps on "Has It Come to This?" "Think I'm ghetto?/Stop dreaming." Everyone's calling him the "British Eminem," but skin color seems to be about the only thing Skinner and Marshall Mathers have in common.
The differences between the two are telling: Eminem's subject matter is either intensely private or mass-cultural --taking on either a relative or personal enemy or a music, a media culture, a nation. By contrast, Original Pirate Material is all subcultural ethnography -- "a day in the life of a geezer," a guided tour of a British youth cult consumed with "sex, drugs, and on the dole" (in ascending order of importance), a "local city poet" negotiating a landscape of "deep-seated urban decay."
Skinner's world is so thoroughly explored and feels so intensely lived-in that the album should come with its own for Dummies guide -- more than a dozen listens in and there's still plenty of local color I can't quite parse. "Has It Come to This?" maps out a lifestyle: "Cos this is our zone/Videos, televisions, 64s, PlayStations/We're pairing with precision/Few herbs and a bit of Benson." "Same Old Thing" tracks the circularity of flat-rat lifestyle: "Football and smut daily as I ponder winning the lottery." Call it Trainspotting hip hop.
In the true tradition of hip-hop regionalism, Skinner embraces his Britishness ("Around 'ere, we say birds/Not bitches," he raps, offering a helpful distinction for Yank tourists). He elucidates his sexual prowess in tennis metaphors and imagines himself as "U.K.'s ambassador/Holding up Excaliber." And though there's plenty of standard hip-hop braggadocio and dozens-playing here, the essential Englishness changes the tenor of Skinner's barbs. He dismisses one sucker MC with "You can't do half/My crew laughs/At yer rhubarb-and-custard verses," while my fave dis is the oh-so-polite "Your beats are inferior/Don't want to embarrass ya/So call your solicitor/The jury voted unanimously against ya!"
The record's first four tracks are brags, the best being the audacious anthem "Let's Push Things Forward" (though Skinner says it's not an anthem but a "banger"), in which Skinner makes good on claims like "This ain't a track/It's a movement" and offers images like "As London Bridge burns down/Brixton's burning up!" But after that, the album's finest songs are more thematically focused. "Geezers Need Excitement" offers a series of vignettes where macho violence erupts in public places, most vividly in a concluding verse set in an after-hours club in which the narrator, cheating on his girlfriend, discovers his girlfriend cheating on him and attacks her guy pal "football-fan style." With bittersweet synthesizers and a sung chorus, "It's Too Late" is a regretful relationship song with an insight and sensitivity that compares favorably with underground American MCs such as Aesop Rock and Atmosphere's Slug.
"The Irony of It All" is the record's most playful track, Skinner playing both roles in an argument between beer-swilling lad "Terry" and herb-smoking student "Tim" that is a very funny, sharp, and pointed consideration of the legal and public attitudes toward alcohol and other drugs and their respective users. This is then followed by the jazzy "Weak Become Heroes," a lovely and seductively nostalgic memory of a first Ecstasy hit.
In its ambitious sweep and confident execution, Original Pirate Material is that rarest of contemporary creations, a Great Album -- a definitive slice of pop culture with tangible literary value. That's one more thing that distinguishes Skinner from Eminem: In 2002, the Brit has made the better record. It's the most important British debut album since Tricky's Maxinquaye back in 1995 and a massive success in its homeland, even if, stateside, it's more liable to confirm Skinner's own prognosis on "Let's Push Things Forward": "Cult classic, not bestseller."
-- Chris Herrington
New York dream-rock quartet Luna has always been one hell of a cover band. With classic renditions of Beat Happening's "Indian Summer," Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot's "Bonnie and Clyde" (with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier singing Bardot's part), and Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" under their belt, it was probably only a matter of time before the band dove all the way in with an album entirely composed of other artists' material. The wryly titled Close Cover Before Striking doesn't go quite that far. Sure, each song originated with someone else, but its seven selections last a mere half-hour, meaning it falls somewhere between an EP and an LP. (The preferred terminology for these things lately seems to be "mini-album." Whatever you say.) Nevertheless, CCBS rolls along as smoothly as anything the band has recorded. Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights," originally a 1999 b-side, is given perhaps the most ingenious overhaul, with guitarists Dean Wareham and Sean Eden rendering the original moot.
Ivy, on the other hand, tends to step other folks' material up a notch. Appropriately, the NYC trio fronted by Paris-born singer Dominique Durand recycles about half of Guestroom, its 10-song covers collection, from previous albums, usually compilations, though its version of the Blow Monkeys' "Digging Your Scene" can also be found on last year's Long Distance. It sounds better here, though, probably because it's in such close proximity to Ivy's gorgeous rendition of the Go-Betweens' "Streets of Your Town" -- two songs Ivy was, from the sound of it, born to perform. Apart from a draggy "Be My Baby," the rest is as lithe as you might hope.
-- Michaelangelo Matos
Grade (both albums): A-