Almost 20 years ago, wordsmith extraordinaire Mike Skinner gifted us with A Grand Don’t Come For Free, the second album under his on-off-on again moniker, The Streets. Inspired by songwriting manuals and books by Hollywood screen-writing gurus, the album chronicles the events in the life of a man who loses £1,000 in savings and the trials and tribulations of his doomed relationship with a woman named Simone as he tries to recoup the money. Critically lauded upon release, the album is widely considered the best British hip-hop concept album ever.
A noted stylistic departure from his similarly heralded debut Original Pirate Material, A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a rap opera of sorts, and arguably the last truly great body of work Skinner has recorded under the moniker. Sonically stripped back but thematically cinematic, the album sees Skinner turn his attention to the everyday and mundane and imbuing it with – or perhaps extracting from it – the darkness and drama that often goes unnoticed. It may well be his masterpiece, and no track better exemplifies this than its third single ‘Blinded by the Lights’.
The hazy, panic inducing track sees Skinner’s protagonist recount a night he spent spurned by the object of his desire, Simone, passing the time drinking alcohol and taking dodgy ecstasy. As an artist, Skinner is well-known for his ability to evoke images that seem all too familiar, colouring the dramatic landscape of his lyrical narrative with colloquialisms and relatable situations. The song, the fourth track on the album, boasts eight verses, six of which make up its first act of two, in which the protagonist describes arriving at the nightclub hellscape which is “rammo in the main room”. He’s waiting for his new girlfriend and his best friend, Dan, and can’t seem to get signal on his phone. We’ve all been there.
While coming relatively early in the 11-track listing for the album, it could be argued that ‘Blinded by the Lights’ is the thematic centrepiece of A Grand Don’t Come for Free. It is here that we get the first hint that the protagonist’s relationship probably isn’t going to end well. The track’s choruses are punctuated by his invasive thoughts as he awaits them (“They said they’d be here, they said / They said in the corner”, “Where the fuck are ya?”, “No, that’s not them / That’s not them either”). But to focus on this one plot is to tell only half the story.
What makes the track so good is the multiple levels it works from. While the lyrics do a perfect job of setting the scene on their own, the sparse, moody composition is what really puts it over the top, itself as important a literary device as the words Skinner has penned. The wobbly synth line set against a menacing 808 beat that perforates the track does as much to evoke an image of ‘90s clubbing as anything else. This, paired with Skinner’s words, really make the social isolation and paranoia described by the song’s protagonist feel that little bit more real.
While the repetitive cycle of descending and re-ascending synth notes goes on and on, Skinner’s protagonist reports the events of the night in real-time. Having snuck a “baggy” past security, he inspects his cheap, foul-tasting procurement, knocking one back while periodically coming to reception to check his phone and text Simone and lament her absence. Feeling his purchase was a dud, he pops another and makes for the restroom. It’s here that the song plays it’s trump card. In the final couplet of the track’s sixth verse, the protagonist declares “Sure my belly’s tingling a bit / Something’s happening I’m sure.”
A subtle whooshing sound sees that looping synth line replaced over the chorus by a syncopated keyboard measure. Over the penultimate verse, a faint, siren-like noise builds in the background. That one, piercing, tinny 808-beat is joined by building hi-hats. The protagonist tells us:
“Whoa, everything in the room’s spinning/ I think I’m gonna fall down/ My heart’s beating too quick/ I’m fucking tripping out/ I wonder whether they got in?/ Turned away, no doubt/ Who cares?/ This is a tune coming in/ That one noise is like…”
Then, much like the drugs, the beat kicks in. Fleeting thoughts come and go as the protagonist tries in vain to get Simone and Dan’s attention before completely giving in to the high, rubbing his thighs while his eyes roll back in his head. In a way, you’re on it with him.
It’s been almost 20 years since the release of A Grand Don’t Come for Free, and its influence is still evident. In the years since, Skinner has come and gone from the Streets project, releasing a further three albums using the moniker and another three under others (The D.O.T’s And That in 2012 and Diary in 2013, plus The Darker the Shadow the Brighter the Light’s The Streets in 2021).
While each one has had moments of intrigue, maybe even brilliance, A Grand Don’t Come for Free is his last truly great work, and ‘Blinded by the Lights’ is the jewel in its crown.