Aw, it must be so hard for pop stars when they become successful. Today, camera phones and weblogs smudge the line between fan and critic, between celebrity and citizen. Mike Skinner, the one-man wunderkind producer/rapper/singer behind the Streets, knows this. His second-album, 2004's A Grand Don't Come for Free, a conceptual tale of adventures in the urban U.K., proved that he was more than that novelty Eminem from across the sea that his riotous 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, would have led some to believe. So, what's left for him to do? Obviously focus directly on the quirks and struggles of his fame, it seems, on his third full-length, the aptly titled, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living.
With fame comes newfound song-writing opportunities. "When You Wasn't Famous," the album's lead single demonstrates what Skinner does best on this album, and the ones proceeding, for that matter. His cutting lyrics on tabloid rumoring are matched by an equally impressive marching beat. The truth is, Skinner feels just like a normal guy, especially when he compares himself to really famous celebrities: "And I knew that when the people who thought they knew you, when they found out, I would've been mocked / Which is ironic, 'cos in reality, standing next to you I look fucking soft." Questioning popularity's legitamacy is a refreshing take on the whole fame preoccupation.
"Prangin Out," the album's lead-off track offers a similar answer to this supposed problem of fame. Backed by an intense beat which hits at full force then backs off slowly (a Streets trademark), Skinner spits self-aware lines like "The rock and roll cliche walked in and then smacked me," a brooding on that oft sung-about topic -- cocaine (with fame, of course, marijuana gets an upgrade). The drug pops up again, though mixed with art -- the mildly irritating "Hotel Expressionism" -- and consumerism -- the flat out boring "Memento Mori."
However, some tracks on the album are just recycled from when Skinner, ironically enough, wasn't famous. "War of the Sexes" comes off as a bloated, over-produced version of one of Original Pirate Material's freshest moments, "Don't Mug Yourself." And "Never Went to Church," a campy, overly sentimental eulogy to his father -- a better type of emotional ballad can be found on A Grand Don't Come For Free's "Could Well Be In" -- breaks up the albums cheeky prankster flow.
The album's title track, a ghostly take on the confusion of the music business, outlines Skinner's rise to fame. The track, however, perhaps representative of the entire album itself, doesn't truly capture a unique and exciting artist coming into his own the way his previous two albums, with their everyday urban sketches and narrative interactions, did.