The Streets | The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic)

The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living succeeds most when it turns inward.

Mike Skinner has coasted this far on charm. The man behind the Streets has become the face of British hip-hop in America and, insofar as he has thrived, it has been in contrast to the Mafioso myth-making of the New World version. Skinner’s narratives are microscopic, the world written in a grain of sand. Sidewalk chalk drawings across the street from grand graffiti art. Then he sold three million albums and entered the unreal world of celebrity. The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living is unstable and overstated, yet, at times, it emerges as his most developed work yet.

Perhaps the primary distinction of Skinner from any other hip-hop superstar is that he does not trust himself. More than anything else, it is this skepticism that anchors an album that walks along the razor’s edge of self-absorption. After all, the hook of first single “When You Wasn’t Famous” sends up the first of many red flags: “When you’re a famous boy/It gets really easy to get girls/So when you try to pull a girl/Who is also famous too/It feels just like when you wasn’t famous.” If the rest of the song wasn’t a bittersweet tabloid-baiting account of an affair with a crack-smoking pop star who dumped him, I might be less likely to overlook the awkwardness of the sentiment. It is a basic celebrity fallacy that just because one seems important as an individual, one’s thoughts also become important.

The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living succeeds most when it turns inward. In particular, “Prangin Out,” the title track, and “Never Went to Church” maintain a worn authenticity. Skinner has always been the master of the well-placed detail that is able to draw the listener in as if involved in a private conversation. Pacing-wise, these moments aren’t allowed to accumulate, as they are broken up by genuinely awful tracks such as “Memento Mori,” which has perhaps the worst hook I’ve heard. “Can’t Con an Honest John” follows, digging the channel deeper. The album ultimately loses internal coherence, the only uniting aspect the surprising insularity of its public narrator. Judging by the press surrounding the album, The Hardest Way was meant as a red-carpet epic, but it ends up as a widescreen diary, small in every way but presentation.

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