Plan B - Ill Manors - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Plan B - Ill Manors

by Aidan Rylatt Rating:8 Release Date:2012-07-23

One thing that can be said of the musical career of Ben Drew, aka Plan B, is that it has been far from straight-forward. Drew first burst onto the scene in 2006 with debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, which featured disturbing tales of lives blighted by poverty, drugs and crime, over backing tracks which often featured acoustic guitar played by Drew himself - not what one would expect from a rapper, perhaps.

The album was excellent but, unsurprisingly, was not what one would call a mainstream success. When it was announced that Drew intended the follow-up to be an album of soul songs and, what's more, a concept album based around the story of an innocent man being imprisoned, alarm bells began to ring. It seemed likely that the album would be a disaster and that Plan B would fade away - which made the success and, lest it be forgotten, quality of The Defamation of Strickland Banks all the more impressive.

Consider the lyrical content of one of Who Needs Actions' best songs, 'Kidz' (opening line: "Yeah, this is my time now, you get me? Fucking cunts."), which detailed the lives of the underclass in an almost sadistic manner ("I break a bottle over some boy's head/ Stab a broken piece into the poor cunt's leg/ I leave him in an alleyway, screaming and bleeding to death/ Run away, laughing my head off and leave him for dead"). The idea that songs from the same artist's second album would go on to be played around the clock on Radio 2 and Smooth Radio would have seemed as absurd in 2006 as someone telling you that Liam Gallagher would be the next Prime Minister.

Having received such huge commercial success with ...Strickland Banks, not many would have blamed Drew for abandoning hip hop and trying to carve out a career as the 'male Amy Winehouse'. It was a brave decision, then, for him to reveal his plans to return to the hip hop of his first album. Still, few would have expected what was to come. Comeback single 'Ill Manors' was a revelation, with Drew rapping about life on a council estate over a backing of racing violins periodically interrupted by a chorus that sounded more like a football chant ("Oi! I said oi! What you looking at you little rich boy?") than anything else.

It was the political edge which really raised interest, however. Searing indictments of the cuts to the state imposed by the coalition government ("Who closed down the community centre?/ I killed time there, used to be a member/ What will I do now till September?/ School's out, rules out, get your bloody tools out/ London's burning, I predict a riot") are not what one expects from Radio 1 a-listed artists - you wouldn't get this sort of stuff from David Guetta, put it that way.

Putting 'Ill Manors' as the first track on the album was a smart decision - as an attention grabber it couldn't be much more effective. In terms of the content of the rest of the album, however, it's a bit of a red herring - there's nothing else on Ill Manors that is as overtly political as the title-track. As the second song on the album, 'I Am the Narrator', makes clear, the lyrics of the other songs are less of a call-to-arms and more of a neutral account of the activities of the 'underclass'.

In this respect, much of Ill Manors is similar to Who Needs Actions... in lyrical content - harrowing tales of people forced into lives of struggle. So we get songs called things like 'Drug Dealer' and 'Great Day for a Murder', and lyrics about heroin addiction ('Deepest Shame') and, on 'The Runaway', an illegal immigrant forced into prostitution to feed her newborn baby.

It's safe to say that Radio 2 might not be playing these songs as much as they did 'She Said'. Ill Manors differs more from Who Needs Actions... musically than it does lyrically. In the six years since his debut Drew has evidently diversified his musical influences - 'I Am the Narrator' has a vaguely reggae-ish feel to it, for example, and 'Great Day for a Murder' is backed by heavy guitar. The excerpts of dialogue from Drew's film, also called Ill Manors, which feature throughout are an annoyance, however, particularly on 'Pity the Plight' which deserves more after a beautifully written spoken-word appearance by John Cooper-Clarke.

Of the tracks other than 'Ill Manors', 'Lost My Way' is likely to be the biggest single, thanks mainly to its catchy call-and-response chorus. The song takes an interesting turn, however, with the discordant piano that introduces the verses which feature (along with 'Ill Manors') the strongest lyrics on the album. Drew's critique of consumerism in the song rivals anything written by Polly Toynbee about the plight of the poor: "The worship of money merged all colours and creed/Into one true religion that was driven by greed/ Corporate machines trying to sell you shit you don't need/ On television and the ad breaks in between /Until people only cared about material things/ Not lives with other fellow human beings".

It is moments like this, lyrically at least, which raise the album above Who Needs Actions... Drew still has a tendency to let his lyrics come across as Daily Mail-style, urban-poor horror stories - at one point he writes of a prostitute breast-feeding her baby whilst having sex, for example. But where Who Needs Actions... never really gave any indication of how Drew felt about how the poor are sometimes forced to live, Ill Manors repeatedly tries to make the point that people don't choose to live these lives - it is all they know, and it is not they who should be condemned, but the society which allows people to be failed to this extent. 'Lost My Way' puts this best: "You judge them on the life that they lead/ But then it's not all as black and white as it seems/ They're all some way enslaved and their circumstances/ Shape the way they behave in their battle on the street/ That's why these kids ain't got no hope".

In a career characterised by brave decisions, releasing Ill Manors is perhaps Drew's bravest yet. It is often noted that the 21st century has been curiously absent of musicians willing to engage with politics - no modern day Billy Bragg or Paul Weller. Even the bands which have come closest have abandoned their strategy - The Enemy's Tom Clarke recently spoke of how he's taken to chronicling the "serious beauty in life" over political matters, and Reverend & the Makers have released a single called 'Bassline' that is as far away as possible from John McClure's previous attempts to engage with current affairs.

With this decline in bands engaging with politics, it would appear the way has been cleared for hip hop to be politicised. Plaudits were rained down on the unknown MC Nxtgen when he released the highly critical 'Andrew Lansley Rap' last year, and newcomer Joey Bada$$ has (somewhat incoherently) alluded to the anger at Wall Street and politicians most associated with the Occupy movement on his new 1999 mixtape.

As we witness the destruction being wrought by the failure of the neoliberal orthodoxy, someone has got to seize on the anger being felt by 'the 99 per cent'. With the poor receiving punitive jail sentences for things like stealing a bottle of water, while bankers engaged in fraud to the sum of billions of pounds get off with a resignation and a massive pay-off, the idea of equality before the law has been exposed as a cruel joke.

Ill Manors is at its most impressive when it fully engages with these matters, as in the title track: "There's no such thing as broken Britain/ We're just bloody broke in Britain/ What needs fixing is the system/ Not shop windows down in Brixton". It might not sell as well as ...Strickland Banks but Plan B deserves praise for making an album as visceral, brave and challenging as Ill Manors.

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