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The Streets 

The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic)

After taking garage and two-step to unexpected creative heights on Original Pirate Material, then dropping a mind-blowing concept album about a slacker everyman, fame, fortune, and fuck-ups, Mike Skinner was driven to record his own Hotel California. Or so it might seem, on an album that begins with a coke-wasted Skinner whining, "I don't want anyone I know to see me like this" and ends with a real-life clip of him melting down onstage.

But the Cockney conversationalist who finally made British rap sound brilliant is too smart and talented to let rock-star excesses -- and the even greater excesses of writing about them -- derail him. Still able to manufacture killer hooks from nursery-rhyme chants and videogame rhythms, Skinner chronicles his descent with a constant wink. Even "Never Went to Church," a tribute to his late father, is cheeky enough to swipe its tune from "Let It Be" and closes with an irreverent quip. Perhaps Skinner will have to dig deeper to retrieve another masterpiece, but until he makes a record that isn't great, who cares?

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