x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Streets: Computers and Blues

The Streets' new - and reportedly final - album Computers And Blues is an entertaining and often curious collision of sounds.

Warner Bros UK
****

A rap star announcing his retirement is usually about as reliable a gesture as a soccer chairman expressing confidence in a struggling coach: neither stance tends to hold. Mike Skinner's assertion that Computers and Blues will be The Streets' final record resonates more truthfully, however, as he doesn't do unnecessary hype these days.

Skinner's project has never fully recovered from the Rolls-Royce syndrome, a condition that also afflicted his rock 'n' roll counterparts, the Gallagher brothers. Both The Streets and Oasis enjoyed enormous crossover success by chronicling the thrills and spills of lives familiar to their listeners, then sullied their reputations with self-indulgent third albums that wallowed in the pain of being a pop star; for Oasis's overblown Be Here Now, read The Streets' The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living. Both, tellingly, featured a Rolls-Royce on the cover.

While Oasis spent over a decade attempting to recover their early vigour, Skinner immediately changed tack with 2008's low-key (but also low-impact) Everything Is Borrowed, and has now issued this swansong. The final act of a five-album record deal, Computers and Blues is an entertaining but often curious collision of sounds and concepts, like a closing-down sale where the cheery decorations fail to mask the shopkeeper's air of gloom.

This is most apparent on the awkwardly titled Trying to Kill M.E., which features the sort of jolly piano break over which a Kate Nash or Scouting for Girls would usually chirp merrily. Instead, Skinner mumbles morosely about his recent struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome, only perking up for the chorus: "The thing that I love most is trying to kill me," he warbles. Oh dear.

One good thing about a final album is the freedom it offers, and Computers and Blues is certainly an unpredictable listen. It kicks off with a riff taken directly from Apple's music-creation software, Garageband, finishes with a lyrically apt soul anthem about how he'll "knock out the lights, lock the locks and leave", and veers wildly between styles and themes within, as if every last idea has been thrown into the mix. A concept album it definitely isn't.

Musically, the overall mood is uptempo, lo-fi electronic and dancefloor-friendly, with occasional snatches of guitar to beef things up, and while Skinner's words may often be less than uplifting, they remain impressively distinctive. Like a good observational comedian he has a gift for highlighting everyday oddities and minutiae, and if there is a recurring theme here, it's the increasingly dominant role played by computers in our social, as well as working, lives.

Another lazily titled song, OMG, is devoted to a complication in modern romances, the "relationship status" feature on the social-networking site Facebook; he even bemoans the stark font in which these vital updates are posted ("plain Helvetica"). Blip on a Screen expresses bewilderment at seeing his unborn baby in such an abstract fashion for the first time - "this is just mad, I love you, you're only 100 pixels on a scan" - while the combat-speak of Without Thinking sounds dramatic but actually concerns the confusion one experiences after several days locked away playing violent computer games.

Confusion and bewilderment aren't sensations often associated with hip-hop - self-reflection isn't a particularly useful quality when you start out "battling" other MCs in clubs, after all - so Skinner's unfailingly honest approach would be missed. If the demise of The Streets does lead him to hang up the microphone, let's hope he follows regular rap norms for once, and rapidly reconsiders that retirement.