It’s probably no mere coincidence that ill Manors, the third studio album by rapper, singer, songwriter and film director Plan B, has emerged at the height the Olympic euphoria evoked by the London 2012 games. Where the event’s opening and closing ceremonies aimed to congratulate the multiculturalism, talent, creativity and all round success of the city and in fact the state, Plan B’s rugged, abject and sometimes sinister poetry seems to have provided an alternative commentary.
Two years after his hugely successful soul/pop endeavour The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Mr Benjamin Paul Drew – as he is otherwise known – has, to the surprise of many, returned to his love for Hip-Hop, and the sound here is covered largely by Grime style rapping. However, PB’s vocal contribution is not the only change. Musically the two albums could not be more different. Despite subtle injections of rap Strickland Banks stuck fiercely to its genre, while ill Manors presents us with a surfeit of experiments with style.
‘I Am the Narrator’ (produced by long time collaborator Eric Appapoulay) plays out with haunting strings and a thick bass reminiscent of ’90s Trip Hop, while PB tells us that he’s a ‘lyrical narrator’ and a ‘social commentator’, thus introducing us to the numerous stories he’s about to tell.
‘Playing With Fire’ features a brave mix of acoustic piano, bass which sounds as if hijacked from a heavy metal balled and both awe-inspiring vocals and co-production from Labrinth. The combination of performance poet John Cooper Clarke’s harsh delivery and PB’s fairly mature and permanently outraged voice, along with a menacing piano hook makes ‘Pity The Plight’ the darkest point on the LP.
That almost every track is co-produced by Plan B himself seems to work to the album’s favour and gives all of the numerous sounds both his personal touch and a common theme. Like the film on which ill Manors is based, the album continually portrays several short character studies and presents them as songs.
‘The Runaway’ is a gang related affair in which a girl is a kidnapped by the Russian mafia, used as a sex slave and attempts to escape with her new born child. And in ‘Drug Dealer’ (which features vocals from Chase and Status collaborator Takura) a character called Chris, who is the son of a heroin addict, and now a seller of illegal substances himself, seeks revenge on the ‘racist cunt’ who sliced him in the face with a knife as a child and Kirby the man most likely responsible for his mother’s overdose and eventual death.
These ‘harrowing tales’ (along with many others) are set in Forest Gate, the area in which as PB was raised; which, by chance, is merely a mile from the chief signifier of all the commercialism and cheerfulness of London 2012, i.e. the Olympic Park. The question this evokes is of course: is PB merely telling stories for the sake of telling stories or is there some major assertion he’s trying to make?
Perhaps, like the LP’s title track, ill Manors is an overall examination of the causes of the riots in Britain last summer and can to some extent be deemed a validation, as well as a collection of anthems for the disenfranchised for who inner city life is not the celebration of diversity and opportunity that some might think it is, but a perpetual battle against ignorance, drug addiction, extreme poverty, prostitution and government cuts.
PB’s approach is obviously a little too bleak in places and at times one gets the impression that he gets being a realist and being a pessimist slightly confused. Yet it seems he should at least be applauded for utilizing his popularity to make statements that need addressing.
It comes across as odd that the album’s two closing tracks totally contradict each other and to some extent it feels as if Mr Drew isn’t exactly sure which expression to leave us with. On ‘Live Once’, which features fellow East London emcee Kano, he sings “everything will be ok come tomorrow,” then on ‘Falling Down’ he tells us, “don’t attempt to save my soul.” Perhaps he’s merely urging us to make the choice between condemnation and redemption ourselves.
Whatever his rationale, Ill Manors might just mark the highest point in Plan B’s career so far.