Two years ago, The Streets' second album 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' seemed to emerge out of nowhere. Yes, Mike Skinner's Mercury Prize-nominated debut 'Original Pirate Material' had established him as a witty and original MC-ing proposition - a motor-mouthed phoenix from the ashes of the UK garage scene. But this new record was something completely different.
A concept album, a hip-hopera, whatever you wanted to call it, it took things to a completely different level for The Streets (Three million copies sold, a number one single and album, multiple Brit and Ivor Novello awards). It also gave a totally authentic but superbly artful voice to the real middle England - the middle England not of warm beer and cricket, but Barratt Homes and Bacardi Breezers.
In the first few months of 2006, you could see 'A Grand Don't Come For Free's influence everywhere. From the obvious, in-your-face places, like the artwork on the Arctic Monkeys' record-breaking debut album (which might be the I-Pod photo-store of a long-lost Sheffield-based branch of the Skinner family), to more unexpected, subliminal arenas, such as Chantelle's triumph on 'Celebrity Big Brother.'
But what has the man himself been up to? That disappearing act at the 2005 Brit Awards we know about (Everything was going according to plan, but then, just as the time came to pick up his best album gong, Mike Skinner - like T.S.Eliot's cat MacCavity - wasn't there). Then there was the Beats label, which brought through silver-tongued proteges The Mitchell Brothers with their underrated, Skinner-produced debut (which might have easily turned out to be the third Streets album, if the wind of fate had blown in a different direction). Then there was the six-figure Reebok advertising deal. And if you read the red-tops, you might have picked up rumours of the odd gambling incident. But no amount of advance build-up could prepare you for what The Streets has in store for us.