The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Beards, Blazers & Glasses: The Streets

Most journalists aren’t all that creative. Obviously. I’m not out to hate on journalists per se, but let’s be real with ourselves. Every time Adam Morrison takes a shot for the rest of his life, some journalist somewhere will rush to compare him to Larry Bird, mainly because he’s white and wears a mustache. This same lack of creativity manifested itself four years ago when Mike Skinner released his debut album, “Original Pirate Material,” and the only thing that could be heard stateside was the collective sound of every American music journalist immediately tagging him, “The British Eminem.”

Of course such a pronouncement was rushed and ill-advised, especially considered a careful analysis of both men at that point yielded few similarities other than a lack of melanin. Think about it. While Eminem did rise from the world of underground hip-hop, by the time his debut, The Slim Shady LP dropped, he was well-positioned to be the “golden boy” of rap. Dr. Dre beats, major label promotion, an incredibly dense syllabic flow that could hold its own with any rapper in the world. Plus, there was Eminem’s genius in building a cult of personality around himself. People weren’t necessarily as interesting in Eminem’s songs as much as they were interested in Eminem himself, his troubles with Kim, his mother, growing up white in an all black neighborhood and getting thrashed for it, and generally being a poor gutter kid from the streets made good.

The Streets was anything but. If Eminem was “the class clown freshman dressed like Les Nesman,” Mike Skinner was the quiet kid in the back of the class, who didn’t say much and spent most class periods drawing in his notebook. Then one day, you’d ask him about his weekend and he’ll tell you some crazy story about he’d taken E and gone raving. A week later you’d ask him again and he’d tell you how he and a bunch of friends spent the weekend, taking bong rips and playing video games. After a while you’d start to think to yourself: “maybe I should be hanging out with this kid after all.”

Indeed they seemed to be markedly different personalities. Eminem, the joker with all the technical skill in the world, writing direct, blunt lyrics. The Streets was the poetically inclined introvert content to study girls twirling their hair. C’mon, do you really think Eminem would’ve ever written anything like “Turn the Page,” from the Streets first album, a song that featured lines like:

All stare, eyes glazed/Garage burnt down, the fire raged/For 40 days and in 40 ways
But through the blaze they see it fade/The sea of black, the beaming heat on their faces
Then a figure emerges from the wastage/Eyes transfixed with a piercing gaze
One hand clutching a sword raised to the sky/They wonder how, they wonder why
The sky turns white, it all becomes clear/They felt lifted from their fears
They shed tears in the light

Doubtful. By 2004, the divide between the two men seemed to be even larger, as that year, The Streets dropped his second album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, a very solid follow-up to OPM. While it might not have been as arresting as his debut, A Grand, was very much an artistic step forward. A concept album centered around a day in Mike Skinner’s life, the album only seemed to make the Streets more likable, as he seemed to spend each day pondering the minutiae of life, just like the rest of us: forgetting to charge his cell phone, meeting girls in bars, deciding whether or not it was worth it to smoke that roach lying in the ashtray. As Ian said, “it seemed like Mike Skinner was one of the few musicians you’d actually want to hang out with.” In America, Streets-mania was primarily the province of music critics, bloggers, hipsters and music critic blogger hipsters (Mr. Jones…insert joke here), but in England, the Streets became the biggest pop star in the nation. Sort of like…..

Eminem, who by 2004, had completely alienated himself from most of his original fan base with his atrocious and disheartening fourth album, Encore which featured him basically recycling the same themes that everyone had heard on previous albums, but also featured a newer and even more crass and stupid Eminem. Not only did he know think he was a gangsta’ who could stomp you with his Air Force Ones, but he was so bereft of ideas that he actually had album tracks entitled: “Big Weenie,” “Puke,” and “Ass Like That.” The Eminem that had been a creative force in the first half of the decade was finished. Nothing more than a pop star for 13-year old girls and boys to fawn over and for music critics to pretend that he still mattered (or are you forgetting the gallons and gallons of ink wasted for critical essays arguing that “Mosh” just might propel John Kerry to the presidency?).

But we still had the Streets. He was an artist. A poet even. There was no way that he would let fame and fortune go to his head. Right? Wrong. His latest album, The Hardest Way to Make An Easy Living, is an embarrassment. It’s not that it’s so bad. After all, it does have a few good songs. But ultimately, repeated listenings bear it to out to be a shallow and vapid exercise in self-indulgence . Disagree with me? Then go listen to “Momento Mori,” and it’s lyrics like “Am I shallow/ Am I hung up on such wrong ways/Yes I am shallow and loving every wrong play,” or it’s chorus, “Memento mori, memento mori/ It's latin and it says we must all die/I tried it for a while but it's a load of boring shit/So I buy buy buy buy buy buy.”

All in all The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living should be the best anti-cocaine advertisement for aspiring artists since the entire decade of the 1980’s. Judging from the content of the album: it’s disdain for women, his fans, and anyone deemed “dumber” than him, Skinner had gotten rich, egomaniacal, and ultimately the most damning thing for any artist: creatively lazy. By 2006, both Eminem and Mike Skinner seemed to have become the same thing. To loosely paraphrase 50 Cent, they got rich and stopped trying.

But in spite of my disappointment with his latest album, I anxiously looked forward to catching The Streets when he swung through LA last Saturday night. It meant my second trip to the Henry Fonda Theatre in one week, and while I knew that there was no shot that Skinner would bring it like Jack White had three days previous, I had hopes. From the articles I’d read about the tour, he’d claimed to have cleaned up his act and was focusing a lot better on the road this time.

What I saw at the Henry Fonda was nothing short of profoundly depressing. The Streets who you’d always rooted for, was nowhere to be found. In his place was a guy looking like a washed-up extra from an old episode of Miami Vice, wearing an expensive-looking grey blazer with the sleeves rolling up, a yellow t-shirt, and a pair of oversized sunglasses. He seemed as though he had gotten dressed up to go clubbing, rather than to actually perform. He sort of looked like he was doing a bad Justin Timberlake impersonation. Set against a garish backdrop of palm trees and a sunset, the whole thing just looked even more ridiculous.

And yet the only thing that was consistent about his show was that it kept on getting more ridiculous. Not only did he come out with a live band, which is fast becoming more clichéd than original (dear rappers: you can’t be trend-setters when everyone else does the same thing), but he came out with a hype man/R&B singer/weed carrier/R. Kelly impersonator, who for better or worse stole the show from Mike Skinner. Not only did the ersatz R. Kelly believe he was the star, he kept on talking to the crowd doing interludes, doing all sorts of come-ons to the crowd, including pelvic thrusts and at one point he even did lengthy a capella to a girl (attending the concert with her boyfriend), repeating “don’t you wish your boyfriend was hot like me” ad nauseum. All I can say about this imposter is that he better do a great job of rolling blunts because he’s certainly a terrible performer.

Meanwhile, between songs Mike Skinner kept on trying to perfect some sort of asinine “loverman” persona, talking about how hot the girls in the crowd were, and at least two different points he referenced how great the book “The Game” was. Cool, Mikey. It’s really great how you can get girls now. I’m really proud of you. Now, maybe you can focus on the music again.

But the music itself was atrocious. The Streets has never been the most verbally dexterous rapper in the world, but on-stage, he looked flat and dazed, full of empty braggadocio and hollow eyes. When he would deliver a verse that should’ve been fraught with meaning (think that same verse from “Turn the Page), he seemed to have no emotional commitment to any of his lyrics, as though a different person had written them in the first place. But it wasn’t just the lack of emotion in his voice, he was wildly and painfully off-beat, as though the album tracks had been auto-tuned. And when he stopped rapping, things only got worse, as at various junctures he kept on trying to sing. Let’s just say that his attempt at singing made Eminem’s “Song For Hallie,” sound like Jeff Buckley.

His stage presence itself was flat-out terrible, all hands in pockets, shoulders slouched, and an “I’m better than all of you” smirk. It didn’t make you want to be his friend; it made you want to stage an intervention. Whether he knows it or not, the man is lost and sinking fast. It seemed clear to anyone who was paying attention.

Sure, The Streets played all of his old songs, but after about 45 minutes of this gibberish, I didn’t even care anymore. No longer able to handle this madness, I walked out, missing the last 20 minutes of the concert. It was all too depressing. Chalk another one up to the perils of fame and fortune because for better or worse, The Streets has finally become the British Eminem. Calling all 13-year old girls and boys…

Passion of the Weiss Rating: 4 Crucifixes Out of 10


At 1:40 PM, Blogger Joey said...

I never got into The Streets. Something wasn't clicking for me. Maybe I'm just xenophobic (although I do love The Go! Team).

It's funny that you wrote about Eminem. I woke up today with an idea for a post about him, noting that he's kind of receded to the background for a minute.

And I responded to your comment in the Big Tuck post.

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous the passionette said...

Once again, great review and great critical commentary.

I was also at the show and it seemed to me that so-called R. Kelly was not so much a hip hop act as a Broadway musical star who lost his way. The whole time he seemed about two minutes away from breaking into a Fosse dance number, complete with pirouttes and jazz hands. And he was UPSTAGING Mike Skinner.

I don't know how they do it in England, but if I want to see someone impersonate a Broadway performance, I'll check out the local college drama departments. Which, sadly, I know all about. Thankyouverymuch.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

It actually took me a while to get into the streets. The first time I heard it my college and roomate and I looked at it like it was the most disastrous thing we'd ever heard because his flow was outright terrible. But I was willing to overlook the fact that he can't really rap until his lyrics started being testimonials to the greatness of shopping sprees. I'd rather heear "Poppin' Tags" at this point anyday. At least those dudes could rap well while talking about materialism.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger CrimeNotes said...

We've discussed this before, but what's happened to him is unnecessary and depressing. Great write-up that confirms what a cynical mess he's become. He's like Ben Roethlisberger on a motorcycle. I hope they both recover quickly.


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