The concept album. Such an ugly idea, conjuring images of Styx, Dreamtheater, Rush, and other shameful bits of Canadian “culture” (I’m not sure if Sty is from Canada, but they might as well be). Sure, Pink Floyd succeeded admirably with The Wall, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here (if you’d consider that an official concept album), and The Final Cut, though Momentary Lapse of Reason didn’t exactly succeed so much (at all) with the whole high-brow nature of the concept album. Unfortunately, this whole high-brow image (which is more accurately described as pretentiousness, not simple high-brow-ed-ness) serves only to make “concept album” a dirty word. The Beatles weren’t exactly pretentious with Sergeant Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band, though it does have its moments of stylistic experimentation bordering on above-mentioned pretentiousness (John: Yoko says it needs more sitar! Paul: I hate you.), but it worked. Each song brought a lot to the table and none were just musical masturbation in the studio. But can there be a straight-forward concept album if The Beatles’ template practically necessitated some obtuseness? Is it even a concept album anymore? What if it maintains that common theme and thread through each song but its depth is in the straightforwardness of the lyrics? The best album of 2004 was a concept album. In fact, the best two albums of 2004 were concept albums.
Though it doesn’t deal with themes such as alienation (OK Computer), living in a consumer-driven society (the last two Pink Floyd albums), and the eternal lightness of being (Hit Me Baby One More Time), A Grand Don’t Come for Free tells the entire story of a night of a recreational drug-using 20-something who begins his big evening out by unfortunately losing 1,000 pounds. It’s not particularly profound, but it’s very British, as The Streets (Mike Skinner), who can lazily be called “Britain’s” Eminem, talks of “birds, holiday, football (when he means soccer)” in the re-telling of his story. All things considered, and for the sake of internal consistency, I’ll remind everyone that I (still) get very little out of words and lyrics in songs. I might know them from frequent listening, but 9 times out of 10, I wouldn’t be able to actually say what a song is about. That said, the significance of A Grand Don’t Come for Free doesn’t stem from its lyrics (or its standing as a concept album due to those lyrics).
The quality of rap music is usually described in two parts: the music and the actual rapping (as much as I hate to say it…… the “beat” and the “flow”). I’m not sure what makes either good or bad, but I can listen to a Jay-Z song and tell that he’s good at rapping, and almost anyone can recognize that the appeal of Hey Ya! is sourced [it’s a hip-hop pun!] back to the musical half (the beat). Granted, lots of people also liked the part about shaking it like a Polaroid picture, but I digress. The Streets (well, Mike Skinner) frequently showcases his wordplay skills (simultaneously completely similar while completely dissimilar to Eminem) and sets this wordplay against music that is almost completely unlike any other rap music in the US. Maybe this is where the appeal lies. I won’t go so far as to say that all rap music sounds the same, but much of it does sound like it was generated with the same “toolkit” or template. Likewise, among popular rap songs, there really aren’t too many topics: “honeys” and “hoes” (obviously, both are synonyms for women…the label simple implies how the guy plans on arranging procreation). Now, for those of you that might be jumping up and down about the myriad topics explored in US rap music, or how there are lots of rap groups that make music that doesn’t sound anything like the MTV-popular(ized) rappers. Yes, there are lots of those groups, but how often do you hear Jurassic 5 blasted out of a car stereo? Nothing against Jurassic 5, The Roots and other groups favored by underground hip-hop apologists, but it’s not mainstream rap. Now, The Streets does mention women (the above-mentioned “birds”) but in decidedly less vulgar terms than any hairmetal band. Though The Streets offers a different take on the concept of rap, one that addresses different issues, different situations, it expands what would normally be considered rap’s limits. These aren’t limits of vulgarity, but similar to Kanye West writing lyrics about un-rap-like concepts of spirituality (in Jesus Walks), A Grand Don’t Come for Free turns the mundane into entertainment in “Blinded by the Lights” as he takes a hit of ecstasy, worries it was a dud, wonders why his friends haven’t returned his text messages, then suddenly is lost in the sweat and jitters of the ecstasy. It’s not profound, but what other artist would be able to make these topics interesting? Sure, there are songs about girls (“Fit But You Know It” – about girls who are dangerously aware of their attractiveness to the point of looking ridiculous and “Dry Your Eyes” – a not inaccurate discussion of how things usually end) but there are also songs about being addicted to soccer gambling, bums who won’t leave your house and on and on.
The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free receives 5 stars as even in a year of well-regarded releases (especially Green Day’s American Idiot, another concept album) it did more. Simultaneously turning not particularly interesting topics into interesting music is quite the feat, especially if it manages to avoid pretentiousness. (Sorry, but the 50’s-esque rock’n’roll break in “Homecoming” on American Idiot is a bit too much.) Musically, it’s an all new soundscape (ooh). Highlights: track 1 (“It was Supposed to be So Easy”), the hidden track after #11, “Empty Cans” (when listening to the album, you can decide how symbolic that title is), and #4, “Blinded by the Lights”, all among a particularly solid collection of songs.