A Grand Don’t Come For Free, by the Streets
I must admit that I am not that familiar with British hip-hop, but an acquaintance of mine told me about one of his favorite albums from the decade of the 2000’s, an album that did not really cross over to the United States but sold extremely well in the UK. Without knowing anything about the group except that someone I know liked it, I gave it a listen and found the eleven-track album to be immensely interesting and also surprisingly relatable (more on that shortly), and if the album is not my favorite of an entire decade, it certainly is a great album and one that deserves a lot of attention. I get the feeling that this album is one of those cases where if you know you know, and I did not know before and now I do, and I can understand why the cognoscenti of music in the UK would see this album as a major touchstone in the hip-hop music of the nation, a moment where a challenge was laid down to other similar artists to be that real and that epic about a life that a great many ordinary Brits, and ordinary people who are not Brits, can easily relate to. I can see myself coming back to this album, as it hits hard, and its ending is deeply satisfying from an ethical point of view as well, which is not something that can be said for every classic hip hop album in existence.
This album contains 11 songs that tell a connected story of a British working-class man who deals with a host of complications that result from losing a thousand pounds. This story, which sounds cinematic in scope, involves a man who thinks he has lost a thousand quid and has a broken tv, finds himself in a relationship with a girl whose body language suggest she might be into him (which she is), tries to earn money by gambling on sports and finds himself fortunate not to lose even more money than he already owed, has a bad night where a bad trip makes him paranoid and jittery, moves in with his girl and smokes a lot while watching tv at her house, gets kicked out of her house for drinking and smoking and not doing something productive, tries to get a rebound relationship with a pretty but not very moral girl, blames himself for his struggles and expresses a desire to get back with his girlfriend, tries to figure out who stole his money while realizing that his girlfriend was with another one of his friends, and then keeps a stiff upper lip about it while trying to dry his tears, and then comes to a resolution, one of which provides insight to his bad choice in friends and some self-awareness about personal responsibility.
This album, even though it is written from the point of view of a British working-class guy, is really relatable even outside of that circle. In listening to this album I found I could very easily relate to its material. The production on here is simply superb. I saw a quote from Pitchfork that compared the music to film score, and that combined with the epic storytelling does give this album a cinematic feel. This is a true concept album in the best way, where the artist has given great thought to an overall narrative, with elements that keep on re-appearing over and over again. The Streets manages to combine both deeply personal detail as well as material that is relatable to a huge audience, which is a difficult balance to strike. The singer’s attempts to avoid personal responsibility, his desire for easy ways out of his problems, including his debts, his lack of motivation, and his longing for love and for others to look out for him, end in self-realization about the fact that others have tough lives that they wrestle with so he has to take responsibility for himself. This is the sort of album I wish more hip-hop albums would be like, with the struggling over debt, over a lack of ambition, over the negative consequences of seeking easy solutions to money problems and easy women to provide sexual intimacy or the use of drugs and alcohol to self-medicate one’s problems, rather than seeing empty flexing from people who haven’t made it yet who brag about stealing your girl. Here, the protagonist loses the girl, but finds something else, namely an insight and a realization about himself and his life that allow him to make some positive changes.