Originally published by PopMatters on February 8, 2011
If Mike Skinner is sick of the Streets, what are the rest of us supposed to make of his purported final album under the moniker? Computers and Blues isn’t always the send-off we might have hoped we’d receive, but that might at least partially lie in our own lofty expectations. He’s been hit and miss in the past, but as a whole, Skinner has been a constant reminder that top quality hip-hop isn’t the sole domain of the United States.
The constant comparisons to Eminem must get tiresome, because for most fans of the Streets, Skinner’s innate ability to tap into the malaise of Average Joes is far more successful than Marshall Mathers’ own efforts in the same genre. That’s not meant to put the backgrounds of the two under the microscope for some attempt at gauging street cred, because honestly, who gives a shit? But while Eminem’s music often seeks to elevate the mundane, the Streets revel in the ordinary world. Eminem, though, is a massive star the world over, while Skinner’s fame is largely relegated to the United Kingdom. He’s always had an uphill struggle in the colonies, where his dense Mockney affectations evoke comparisons to Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep in Mary Poppins, only with way more f-bombs.
Skinner is at his best when his music treads the line between comfort and cacophony, a notion proven when the virtually unlistenable “Roof of Your Car” veers from one narrow extreme to the other, then back again. It’s the combination that’s the key, as best exemplified by “Without Thinking” and “Puzzled by People”, both of which offset Skinner’s laconic delivery and everyman lyrics with hooks and beats guaranteed to latch on to your subconscious and stay there for a while.
Computers and Blues includes multiple collaborations with Rob Harvey, former frontman of the most unwisely-named band in the search engine era, the Music. That’s Harvey’s Geddy Lee-lite on the dreary “Soldiers”, on which even Skinner sounds bored by the whole affair. For a more successful collaboration, look no further than the album’s terrific closing number, “Lock the Locks”, on which Skinner is joined on the reflective chorus by singer-songwriter Clare Maguire.
But more often than not, Skinner’s on top of his game. “Trying to Kill M.E.” is a grand string-and-piano laden epic about addiction, while “Trust Me” comes off like a sunshiny rollerskating jam.
It’s understandable why Skinner would want to bid farewell to the Streets. Despite at least half ofComputers and Blues sounding as vital and important as the best of the Streets, it’s just as vital to know when to let go. The lyrics are still dynamic, the music sharp. But Skinner himself, whether through his muted pre-hype or his often disinterested (even by his standards) performance, sometimes seems as though he already had one foot out the door.
If Computers and Blues is meant to wrap a dynamic five-album cycle, perhaps one need look no further than the cover art. On the acclaimed debut by the Streets, Original Pirate Material, the music is represented by a bleak London tower block. By Computers and Blues, the protagonist is seen through the window of a red-lit condominium; it’s not a palace by any means, but is probably a step in the right direction.
The Streets had run its course, and presumably Skinner will move on to bigger and better things, possibly involving aviation or shipping. Oddly, Skinner recorded more music as the Streets after completing Computers and Blues, though the Cyberspace and Reds mixtape was actually released two weeks prior to the final album proper. Skinner said he wanted the Streets to bow with a bang, claiming on his own Beat Stevie online show that the final Streets album would be “dark and futuristic”, and inspired by a synthesizer exhibition he’d seen in Austria. It’s not unreasonable to assume he’s generally hit the mark with Computers and Blues, a heavy collection of songs with the inimitable Skinner sense of style and substance.