Ben Drew, a.k.a. Plan B, is back doing what he does best on his third studio album, entitled Ill Manors. There’s no doubt that his second effort, 2010‘s The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, was an impressive reinvention, demonstrating his soulful vocal abilities as well as his ear for a big catchy, pop chorus. Tracks like Prayin’ and She Said were lapped up by Radio 1 and unsurprisingly the album went on to sell over a million copies.
However, while Plan B clearly aimed to achieve wider mainstream attention with his concept album about fictional character Strickland Banks, it was never likely to be a direction he would stick with for long. At heart, Plan B has always been a rapper and Ill Manors sees Drew return to the gritty, unflinching hip-hop from his critically acclaimed debut album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words.
There is a lot more to Ill Manors than just a straight-up rap album, though. Drew’s third album is the accompaniment to his film of the same name, which tells the story of eight central characters and their struggle to survive on the streets over the course of seven days in Forest Gate. For Drew – who is from Forest Green – it is very much about the characters being products of their environment. And the environment in Ill Manors is unquestionably bleak.
It’s a brave move from Plan B – one that will alienate a great deal of those who loved the retro-soul of Ill Manors’ predecessor – but, on the whole, his bravery pays off. The self-titled opener is a thrilling attack on David Cameron and the politics that Plan B finds so incomprehensible. “Oi look there’s a chav/ that means council housed and violent/ he’s got a hoodie on give him a hug/ on second thoughts don’t you don’t wanna get mugged,” he raps, taking aim at government ideology.
It doesn’t get any lighter, either. Deepest Shame tells the story of Michelle who was abused as a child and is now prostituting for spare change, with the slowly picked acoustics emphasising the pathos of the story. Playing With Fire, featuring Labrinth, is the tale of a little kid called Jake who is tricked into a life of crime, while The Runaway tracks the disturbing goings on of Katya – who escapes her pimp and heroin addiction, only to return to prostitution to feed her baby because she is unable to speak English or get a job.
Even without seeing the Ill Manors film, it is easy to work out what it is all about. Pity The Plight is one of several tracks that actually includes snippets of dialogue, including a brutal clip of someone stabbing someone else to death and vomiting in the aftermath. There’s no question of Plan B holding back, and sometimes the character portraits are difficult to sympthasise with, but they will always evoke some sort of emotion. Take Drug Dealer, where you can’t help but despair at the story of Chris, a nine-year-old boy whose mother is an addict who has sex in exchange for heroin.
Ill Manors is visionary, it’s bold, but most importantly it’s very good. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s refreshing to hear an artist doing exactly what he wants to do. Plan B is one of the most creative British artists around and by following up such a popular and widely played album with this dark and ferocious record he has taken a gamble. But it’s a gamble that has paid off. You may have to be in a certain mood to listen to it, but if you make the effort it’s more than worth it.