The Streets

The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living

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Apparently, success has spoiled Mike Skinner. It's a common problem among artists who are also working-class social critics; if they become successful, it's increasingly difficult to go back to the well when everything they've used for material changes drastically -- friends and lovers, home life, work life and social life. The wallflower who could study his subjects for hours suddenly lacks for good material when he's the center of attention. Instead of attempting the charade of being a working-class chronicle, he's moved on to the types of problems that come with celebrity, including trashed hotel rooms ("I make these crap rap rhythms to pay the hotel bills that fund my passion"), isolation and loneliness ("I got nothing in my life away from the studio"), fake Streets hats ("Fake Streets Hats"), and the other vagaries of fame ("Camera phones -- how the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers, when I know they've all got cameras?"). So, are these Skinner's sincere reflections on his surroundings, an artistic statement he's proud of, or are they the result of a parodic persona he's assumed, with its requisite shroud of satire? Parody or not (and Skinner assures us he's sincere), The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living is barely worth hearing, aside from curiosity. Most listeners won't care to follow this particular rabbit down the hole because of the bracing cynicism, paranoia, misanthropy, and betrayal they'll hear at every turn on this record. Humility has been replaced by arrogance, reflection by anger, and humor by sullenness. On "War of the Sexes," he offers crass commentary on love and often delivers it in a brutish, nasal bark (including this classic: "Hammered people don't get to nail!"). Non-Anglo listeners will have no interest in discovering what pranging out means, what Skinner has to say about America ("Two Nations"), or that the fake Streets hats on the eponymous track were actually manufactured by his label. The lead single here, "When You Wasn't Famous," is a step down in quality from "Fit But You Know It," the lead single from A Grand Don't Come for Free, just as that track was a clear step down from the top singles on Original Pirate Material. The production has changed little from the last record -- hard-hitting, synth-based productions with minimalist melodies and tough, clanging percussion, except for the occasional piano-based ballad. Skinner's lyrics are striking and distinctive as before, but it's difficult to believe this is the same artist who confronted a stereotypical lager lout named Terry on a track from his first album, titled "The Irony of It All." The irony here is that Skinner sounds more like the lout.

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