Album review: Ill Manors, the Soundtrack by Plan B
PLAN B’s enviable career has, so far, seen him work as a musician (in genres including grime, soul and indie rock), actor and filmmaker.
Plan B: Ill Manors, the Soundtrack
679/Atlantic, £12.99 ****
While this month’s unexpected support slot for the Stone Roses at one of their comeback shows in Manchester inducted him into a previously unaccessed echelon of Britain’s musical heritage, however, it is biting, focused records like this – the follow-up to 2010’s soul-boy concept album success The Defamation of Strickland Banks and the soundtrack of his directorial feature film debut of the same name – which will cement his reputation.
The album is a return to the grime hip-hop style with which he made his name on the 2006 debut Who Needs Actions When You Got Words? This time, Plan B – real name Ben Drew – has amped up the widescreen dramatic effect with a combination of hard-hitting vocals and a musical backing which steps away from the raw bassline and rudimentary samples of your average pirate radio cut.
The opening title track makes quite an impression, swooping in on a frantic, nerve-rattling bed of slicing, Bernard Hermann-style strings and the spat-out killer first line “let’s all go on the urban safari / we might see some illegal migrants.”
It’s a song which revels in a sense of gutter life excitement while expressing a well-articulated anger at the way the lives of those on troubled council estates are manipulated for political capital and then trodden on when the going gets tough.
In defiantly eloquent machine gun rhymes, Drew leads the listener on a fraught guided tour of the inner city estate, pointing out the sinister hoodie (“give him a hug / on second thoughts don’t, you might get mugged”), the derelict high streets, the tabloid scare stories, the pristine Olympic Village being born on the doorstep of deprivation, and a culture in which those at the top and bottom of the food chain in London recognise it’s all about getting paid by any means necessary, thus incubating last year’s riots.
At the heart of the song is a defined and aggressive streak of class consciousness and open resentment from Drew – or the character he’s inhabiting – on behalf of the have-nots towards the haves, the “rich boys” he warns to stay out of his neighbourhood lest their poverty tourism bring them to harm. There’s also room for a frankly pummelled-home dig at the current government: “There’s no such thing as Broken Britain … all that needs fixing is the system.”
It doesn’t feel like overstating the matter to say that this one song represents a potentially seismic shift in the character of mainstream British pop music, a terrain increasingly ghettoised into pleasant but neutered forms of indie rock or an urban scene marked out as much by insularity as edginess.
Drew’s disdain for the political establishment is made plain again later on the record with Playing With Fire, which ropes in currently hot urban vocalist Labrinth to tell the story of “just another poster boy for David Cameron’s Broken Britain,” a young man’s journey from innocent child to gang member.
What rings true, beyond the engaging immediacy of the music and lyrics, is Drew’s sophistication as a storyteller. On I Am The Narrator his voice floats clearly and incisively over a bed of dubby trip-hop, painting the most unappealing sights and criminal activities of the neighbourhood around him, while the angry clatter of Drug Dealer leaves cliché far behind in its description of a man from a background of abuse and drug addiction falling into line with the only life he’s ever been taught to live.
The music might emulate above-average grime fare here, but Drew’s words examine a world that’s alien to most with an unusual sensitivity buried beneath the uncompromising language.
Throughout, there are moments of bravura confidence and sickly immersion in the world he describes, from the melancholy gospel of Deepest Shame – a tale of a female drug user who once had the world at her feet, which provides an affecting antidote to the in-character and sadly realistic references to “bitches” and “dirty tarts” which crop up elsewhere on the record – to the deliberate unpleasantness of The Runaway, about a pregnant Eastern European prostitute on the run. There’s also pitch-black humour with Mancunian punk-poet John Cooper Clarke’s unexpected appearance on Pity the Plight.
The closing pair of songs are a study in emotional contrast. The soulful Live Once is a bittersweet but hopeful testament to all that is good and bad about the East End. Falling Down, meanwhile, is a dark excursion in psychedelic rock, drum‘n’bass and the horror and ennui of being unable to escape your situation (“they can’t knock me down as long as I keep falling”).
To his perhaps unanticipated credit, Drew has written just about the best – perhaps only – state of the nation album in contemporary British pop, and he’s managed to do it without compromising his integrity, its honesty or the enjoyment of the listener. These days, records don’t come much more important.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
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Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
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