None of the pub-thinker wit and storytelling sharpness of Skinner’s garage-rap project has dulled, it seems, but the smart inclusion of newer, vibrant artists as guests is unlike anything he’s done since
Mike Skinner clearly felt he hadn’t anything more to say when he called time on the Streets back in 2011. Before quitting, he left behind Computers and Blues, the work of a man aimless and in search of inspiration. Then again, when the musical and lyrical vein that, to his credit, became influential to the extent that giants of grime cover his best-loved songs or tweet their praise, what’s left to be said? Skinner’s role as a kind of roving everyman, offering internal monologues (“a day in the life of a geezer”) over garage-inflected beats, juxtaposing weed-fume observations on clubbing, relationships, package holidays and inner-city disappointment – or “sex, drugs and on the dole” as 2001’s Has It Come to This?, from his classic debut Original Pirate Material, put it – was inimitable and lucrative: perhaps the only known concept album in history whose concept is carried through to the end, 2004’s incredible A Grand Don’t Come for Free went quadruple platinum.
Having busied himself with a range of other projects, from production work to DJing, you wonder why he’s returned to the Streets banner at all. Following a series of one-off singles that started surfacing in 2017 (including this year’s coronavirus-themed Where the F*&K Did April Go), None Of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive isn’t an album, but a mixtape – that most throwaway and noncommittal of things in rap and pop music – which lowers the stakes a bit. Don’t expect a dick-waving comeback, it seems to warn, and, indeed, there are moments on it where business has resumed as usual: from the title down, his unaffected wit, warmth and sit-down-over-a-pint wisdom continues unabated. “Falling down is an accident, staying down is a choice,” he advises sagely on Falling Down, verbally sparring lazily and amiably in an almost stoned daze with Hak Baker. “People never change, they’re just exposed,” he counters sharply, ever the petit philosopher, on I Wish You Loved You As Much As You Love Him with unassuming authority. “Everyone’s around when times are amazing, but do they wait with you when you’re tying your laces?” he asks ruefully on Phone Is Always In My Hand, drawing attention to the rich seam of humour here that’s long been a Streets hallmark.
Like a standup comic whose last arena tour earned him mixed reviews, Skinner dispenses with the gags from the word go. Reaching back into the wilfully bathetic comedy of his older material, he can do withering (“My phone is always in my hand / If you think I’m ignoring you, I am”; “Some people’s only taste of actual success is when they take a bite from you”; “She talks about her ex so much even if I miss him”) and trippy, absurd surrealism: “If God had have dropped acid, would God see people?” he muses on Eskimo Ice. These are the kinds of lines and wisecracks you’d have found on early Streets records, but there are careful moments of middle-aged insight and forlorn reflection. He’s always been gifted with a poetic turn of phrase, yet breakup ballad Same Direction’s simultaneously groggy and lucid depiction of post-club brooding matches the introverted mood: “The sky moves back like tinted windows revealing tomorrow like a deadly cough.”
In fact, you wouldn’t have found something like Same Direction on any previous Streets albums, and it’s not just because it features meme-friendly rapper Jimothy Lacoste. None Of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive, sonically, makes a concerted departure from anything Skinner’s done before. Take Me As I Am’s booming drum’n’bass sits alongside the rap-rock noise contrived with help from Idles on the title track; Falling Down’s quirky bounce shares space with an intriguing oddity like Conspiracy Theory Freestyle, which plods along following echoing pianos and distorted drum machine clacks. As a demonstration of Skinner’s skills as a producer and the mixtape’s depth, it works. Best of all, almost every track comes in possession of a naively tuneful, solid melody. I Wish You Loved You As Much As You Love Him’s churning 2-step garage beat melts on impact with Greentea Peng’s honeyed vocals into a smooth, slinky bit of UK funky, as if providing its abused protagonist, locked into a toxic relationship, a lifeline.
But Greentea Peng isn’t the only inspired choice of contributor on here. In fact, None Of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive’s supporting cast of singers and rappers shine as bright as all the hilarious homilies and vivid vignettes. From Dapz on the Map’s brilliantly brisk rap on Phone Is Always In My Hand to Jesse James Solomon’s downbeat, drizzly verse on I Know Something or Ms Banks’s instantly charming appearance on You Can’t Afford Me, you’re flooded with an array of star turns. If you had to pick a favourite, there’s Oscar #Worldpeace stealing the show from Skinner on the remarkable The Poison I Take Hoping You Will Suffer. Furthermore, there’s a nice balance between familiar styles, like Eskimo Ice’s sleek, icy old-school grime, disturbed by fat wub-wub bass, and compelling experiments such as the viscous, slow-moving grind on Same Direction.
Judging from his smart, frequent attempts to relinquish the limelight to his guest collaborators, you’d argue Skinner maybe still hasn’t got a lot to say, although, at the age of 40, he probably knows he can’t compete with more youthful, more contemporary voices: truth be told, there’s something cheering about his lack of mic-hogging ego, that rather than show the whippersnappers how it’s done, he’s graciously decided to give them a platform, a showcase of current homegrown talent. But it’s what he says and how he says it that’s sticks with you. The jokes and the insights remind you, fortunately, not of past former glories, but instead of his singular sound. Above all, it’s just good to have the Streets back, and in such fine form.