A Grand Don't Come For Free -
by Mike D'Ariano
A Grand Don't Come For Free is the second album by London-based rapper, The Streets. It was released in 2004, and was hands down my favorite album of the year. The single Dry Your Eyes was a number 1 hit in England. Here in the U.S. nobody knows what the hell I'm talking about when I mention the song, the album, or the even the artist.
I first heard the album in September, the same week the latest Green Day album was released. Sonically, the two records have nothing to do with each other at all, but thematically, there's a similarity . . . sort of.
There was a ridiculous amount of hype about the fact that Green Day's American Idiot album was a "punk rock opera". The term at least the rock opera part is just a silly way of saying that all the songs deal with the same story. It was coined by The Who when they released the album Tommy sometime in the last millennia. I've listened to American Idiot countless times over the past six months or so. I've read the damn lyrics. I can't see a continuous story anywhere in it. There's a name or two that pop up repeatedly, but for the most part, there is no story.
On the other hand, without hearing a single thing about it, I picked up on the fact that A Grand Don't Come for Free was telling one story throughout, the first time I listened to it. From song to song, Mike that's The Streets' real name loses 1000 pounds (as in money not weight), falls in love, gets high, acts like an asshole, loses the girl, and loses his best friends. By the time I got to the last song, I didn't think the album could get any more inventive and then all of a sudden, it did.
Empty Cans, the finale to the story is a final stroke of genius. For the first three minutes, it seems like the story is most definitely going to end on a negative note. Things are going really bad for Mike and then all of a sudden, the tape starts to rewind. When the song restarts, the beat isn't quite as hard, and the story starts over from the point where the previous song ended. In version two of the longer tale's ending, everything goes right for Mike. He makes up with his friends, finds the 1000 quid he lost in the first song, and he gets the girl. So in effect, after telling us this story for forty-five minutes, in the last song, the Streets gives us an ending, plus an alternate ending. It's like the directors cut of a movie or something.
On top of how cool the concept of this concept album is, there are the lyrics themselves. I have never heard a rap album dealing with real life this way before. By real life, I don't mean the gang-life grit that N.W.A. sang about, which surely was real, but surely not for them. I mean real everyday stuff that we all go through. Raps about not being able to get reception on your cell phone, raps about being in a club and thinking people are to close to you, raps about bringing a tape back to the video store and realizing you left the tape in the VCR and raps about shy awkward first conversations between people who are interested in each other but barely know each other. The last one on that list, being the most intriguing in that its just one aspect of something The Streets does on this album that no one had ever done before him . . . hip-hop love songs.
Whereas the role of women in hip-hop has been for the most part one of a sex object, or the person to be told to shut up, or the one to be beaten, the Streets raps openly about wanting to do nothing but sit on the couch with his girl and watch TV. Mike raps about begging his girlfriend not to leave him, and he raps about crying when his pleas are ineffective. It's a whole new ballgame here. Real mainstream life and real positive emotions that have never been in rap before, and by using them in his music, The Streets has created a masterpiece.
Another element of the album is its humor. There's just the right amount of wiseass sass spread throughout the record to make Mike seem like a fun person to be around and not just a drug addict, who can't keep his friends or his girlfriend. In fact, the song I heard which made me want to hear the rest of the album was one called Fit But You Know It. The song is about girls that are full of themselves that Mike meets one night while out drinking. From the first line, "Now I reckon you're about an 8 or a 9, maybe even 9 and a half in four beers time", the song is hilarious.
Just as important as what is on this album is what is not. There are no waste of time skits, or interludes or anything of that nature which you'll find all over most hip-hop albums. The latest from Eminem has three of these. There are no songs about how tough Mike is, and how he's gonna kill everyone in the room. Yeah he gets in a few fights, but they advance the story, and the second one, he doesn't really win. There is no mention of the fact that he is a rapper. He sings no line about how he's the best rapper in the world; a line that I would bet has been on 90-100% of all rap albums since the genre's inception. There's no mention of pop culture. There's no mention of how rich he is in fact since the album is about how his life gets screwed up by losing 1000 bucks, it's actually about how not rich he is. There are no recognizable but irritating samples used in his beats. Plus and this is a big one he doesn't kill, rob or rape one person throughout the entire record. On this album, The Streets seems to have removed every aspect of Hip-Hop that I normally find irritating, while adding new things that the genre has long been in need of.
I already said I thought the Streets album was the best album of 2004, but to go one step further, I thing it might be the most important Rap album of all time. Like Sgt. Pepper did to rock, this album changes all the rules within its genre. Even my fifty-something year old "rap's not music" father asked for a copy of the album when he heard a few tracks off of it.
I can't recommend this album enough. Absolutely brilliant. A+.