The Streets: Coming Clean

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Sitting across from me-barefoot, in an Agnès B suit jacket and diamond pinky ring, and fidgeting mercilessly with the hotel's cordless phone-is 27-year-old Sagittarian Mike Skinner, who, as The Streets, has done quite a bit to elevate the emo bad boy's place in hip-hop. His daytime persona is polite and gracious, and he dabbles in distinctly upper-middle-class pleasures. A Bill Bryson book sits on the end table, a bottle of Dior Homme cologne in the bathroom. He and his publicist discuss high-end dinners and the lemon juice fasts they've been on; in total sincerity, he cues up '80s slow-dance ballads (including Patrick Swayze's "She's Like The Wind" and Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes") on the stereo.

Though Skinner's clearly capable of being a gentleman when he needs to, he breaks out in a devilish grin when talking about spending his birthday with strippers in Vegas, a saucy interview he's just had with Black Book, and the naughty posters in the American Apparel store. And though he doesn't admit to anything more scandalous than that during this interview, he doesn't exactly have to-his third album, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice), contains all the dirt you would ever want to know. From getting in fist fights with his manager to smoking crack with pop stars to complaining about camera phones (they make it impossible to do lines of coke in front of complete strangers), this record is juicier than any Jackie Collins novel.

The Hardest Way is a fluorescent-lit mug shot of The Streets-an extreme step in the evolution that began with the poignant ennui of 2002's Original Pirate Material and its follow-up, the caper soundtrack known as A Grand Don't Come For Free. Skinner's sound-monotone storytelling, sing-songy choruses, beats that veer wildly between moody downtempo, R&B/lounge numbers, and grimy techno hip-hop-definitely won't appeal to everyone, but that's not what this is about. This, to paraphrase Usher, is Mike Skinner's confession.

XLR8R: Did you have an identity crisis lyrically once you were living a celebrity lifestyle, and weren't the ''voice of the common man'' anymore?

No, not really. I actually felt quite excited. Suddenly, there was a lot of crazy shit to write about. People don't really like change, but that's what I've always stood for. Before, people always thought what I was writing about was too mundane; at first, they didn't seem to want to hear about themselves. Now everything is about the mundane, so maybe they won't want to hear about celebrity.

What's the biggest lie you've read about yourself?

The weirdest thing is how you get linked to people, other celebrities that you don't even know. Like Natasha Bedingfield; I've barely spoken to her, and they said I was dating her. But my favorite rumor is the one that says I'm a genius. Who doesn't want to think they're a genius? Plus, it helps me get laid.

What artist or group were you obsessed with as a teenager?

I was quite into Wu-Tang Clan. There was a lot to buy into, a lot of different characters within the group. I really liked Raekwon's rhymes and RZA: that album as Bobby Digital was amazing. In fact, when I was younger I always had the idea to make this group called 2BC, a kind of rip-off of the Wu-Tang Clan. I'm from Birmingham and our soccer club is called Birmingham City, hence BCFC. So the "BC" in 2BC would stand for Birmingham City, but it would be a whole load of us rapping about what Birmingham would have been like 2, years ago. [Laughs] I don't think I've ever told anyone that before.

What artist's mythology do you really get into?

I really like Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix. Everyone's got demons and everyone is struggling with the fact that nothing quite adds up and Johnny Cash was able to be honest about that. He walked the line-what a cliché, but he did-between good and bad. But the bad stuff wasn't even bad-it was just honest. Jimi Hendrix has always appealed to me because he was focused, determined. I like the image of him cooking breakfast with his guitar on. I identify with that. A lot of times I'm writing lyrics while eating breakfast.

Why did you decide to make this album so confessional?

A lot has already been written about me. A lot of stuff has come out that I didn't want to come out. People in my local pub know the better part of what I regret. At least this way, people hear my side of the story. I didn't want to brush over it. I want to explain the reasons why everything has happened. Looking back, I didn't want to go in the local pub and have the guy behind the bar laughing at me. Basically, anything I admit to myself I will write about.

What quality do you most detest in other people?

Well, they say the things you hate the most in other people are things you hate about yourself. I don't like it when people are untactful or superficial...or too sensitive.