The Streets

‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’: Dissecting The Streets Concept of Everyday Life (20 Year Anniversary)

The Streets are still widely considered as one of the finest acts to come out of Birmingham. Led by Mike Skinner, they returned to the scene with much fanfare in the late 2010s, and are now back to releasing albums. Whether that new music is for you or not, where they started is undeniably a classic.

The Road to the Album

Released during the height of garage, ‘Original Pirate Material‘ is a certified U.K. classic. The album and its four singles all reached the charts, which at the time was rare for someone rapping in the U.K. The LP earned critical acclaim both in the U.K. and U.S., for its portrayal of clubbing, colloquial slang (“Round here we say birds not b*****s”), and the life of an average bloke. It resonated with many, and as someone in their mid-20s, it does so with me.

In between the release of their debut, and its follow-up, ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free‘, a lot changed in the U.K. scene. Dizzee Rascal and grime replaced UKG as the dominant sound in the scene, following up Ms. Dynamite with another Mercury Prize win for rap this side of the Atlantic. Skinner himself was very supportive of this genre, as shown by the fact he got everyone from D Double E to Lady Sovereign on the remixes of tracks from this album. Kano and Ghetts would even join him on the supporting tour.

The Birmingham collective would fail to make it a three-peat, once again losing out on the Mercury Prize to indie group Franz Ferdinand. However, they made a project that once again made an impact, but did it in a different way. The album touches on similar themes of drug use, lost love, and clubbing, but as part of a story. The project has been described as a ‘rap opera’, detailing the story of losing money, falling out with friends, and the highs and lows of a relationship.

The Album and It’s Themes

From ‘It Was Supposed to Be so Easy‘ to ‘Empty Cans‘, this LP takes you on a journey, and not a fun one at that. Mike’s character is portrayed as skint, unhappy, and jealous of those around him. The company he keeps is just as bad, with no one really there for him by the end. As a musical experience, this is an album that has to be listened to from start to finish.

This is not a project where you can listen to tracks individually, outside of the singles which gained great acclaim. The opening track, ‘Not Addicted‘, and ‘What Is He Thinking?‘ are like stories in spoken word with a mixture of kick drums, indie guitar, and synths in the background. As Mike laments about his lack of money and hopes of succeeding in a bet or his mistrust of his mates, they wouldn’t make sense alone. If Mike Skinner is not for you, this album was never going to change that, but his monotone spoken-word delivery is unique and fitting for the stories he tells.

The Singles

The singles do stand out and are ear-catching in different ways. ‘Could Well Be In‘ begins the relationship arc. Will Nichols’ chorus on how ITV has told him when someone is interested, is as memorable as it is an earworm. The production floats nicely next to the lyrics, with a sense of enthusiasm and contentment in Mike’s voice. It does its job in the love song department and shows where the protagonist is headspace-wise.

We then have ‘Blinded By The Lights‘, an iconic anthem of the perils of drug use. In terms of the album’s story, the seeds of doubt are beginning to show in the background. From sampling by Loski to a recent drum’n’bass remix by Mixtress, this track continues to have a hold in the rave scene. Its blaring synths and building beat, alongside the confused and disorientated performance from Mike, are a standout. Also, who can forget Jackie Rawe’s iconic chorus and that hypnotic keyboard? This was the third of four top-ten hits for the group and remains a staple of their live set.

A club staple, ‘Fit but You Know It‘ has stood the test of time. It’s currently their most streamed track on Spotify. From the catchy chorus to its iconic use of photographs in the video, the song still has a grip on people in 2024. Taking advantage of the popularity of indie-rock at the time, while having a story of unrequited attraction, Skinner knew how to make an earworm. The track was fitting for the time and continues to be. That cheeky dig of denying you liked someone when they rejected you is fitting of British humour.

But, the song that has come to define The Streets is ‘Dry Your Eyes‘. With the melancholic violin and desperate attempts to retain a relationship, the chorus of Matt Sladen feels like a heart-to-heart with a mate. It’s the culmination of a short-lived, one-way romance that was always destined to end. Skinner knows how to make a break-up song, but this one is bleak in its sound and desperation. This remains their only No. 1 single in the U.K. charts. While not their defining hit, the track is how they are known to the general public.

“And I’m just standing there / I can’t say a word / ‘Cause everything’s just gone / I’ve got nothing / Absolutely nothing.”

Mike Skinner – ‘Dry Your Eyes’

The Aftermath

Ending this story is ‘Empty Cans‘, which brings this depressing tale to a somewhat optimistic conclusion. While ‘Dry Your Eyes‘ brought an end to a relationship marred by infidelity, this track has two endings. Yes, just like your favourite video game, this story offers two paths. In one, Mike is fighting a TV repairman and is left in a state of depression. Meanwhile, in the other, he makes up with a mate and finds his missing £1000 in his broken TV. While, the protagonist has lost a lot, he solves his money troubles and the future looks promising.

The album also topped the charts in the U.K. and Ireland and is certified 4x Platinum in the U.K. It also went Gold in Australia and brought them to the U.S. charts for the first time. ‘Original Pirate Material‘ made them known, but ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free‘ made them a household name. Skinner would win Best British Male at the BRIT Awards and touched on his newfound fame on his next record.

One thing you can say is the group never makes an album that sounds the same. ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free‘ certainly fits that bill, and every project has since. This was their commercial, and in some places, critical peak, and is to many their defining record. Today, the project has been brought back and collaborated with newer names like Master Peace and Greentea Peng. Wherever they go next, this album is one for the history books.

Mike Skinner is on Instagram, X, and TikTok. Stream the album below and read more anniversary reviews here.

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