The Streets

Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic)

I Spy

If nothing else, Mike Skinner proves that not every sensation-stirring, young white rap artist is the same. The 22-year-old became a pop star in his native U.K. by ingesting as many drugs -- and exploring the thrill of macho violence with as much gusto -- as Eminem, and doing it all with a gift for rhyme-slinging that is almost equally inspired. But Skinner's heavy cockney accent and his light club beats frame a sensibility that is so thoroughly English, it'll leave America's little Erics and Ericas dumbfounded.

As Skinner makes clear every chance he can, he chose his moniker not to be "urban," but to reflect the hard, gray lives of Britain's working-class whites, lives he defines as "sex, drugs, and on-the-dole." No wonder, then, that the album's sweeping, doom-laden strings, gorgeous house piano, and steady stream of dry, quick, clean raps are less reminiscent of American hip-hop than of such great English precursors as The Specials' eponymous debut and Tricky's Maxinquaye. Skinner doesn't keep it real, just realistic, and the difference is as big as an ocean.

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