The first voice that you hear on ill Manors is that of John Cooper Clarke, one of Britain's most astute social commentators. With this latest album, Plan B continues his quest to take that particular mantle for himself. Ill Manors is tied in with Plan B (aka Ben Drew)'s film of the same name. His celluloid venture may have failed to set the world on fire just yet (though he can fall back on his impressive performance in front of the camera, in 2009's Harry Brown) but this musical accompaniment sees the 28 year-old successfully wrangling the different facets of his creative persona, into a cohesive whole.
If there's one thing that Plan B has nailed, it's setting up a false sense of security for the listener, only to rattle their sensibilities moments a few moments later (remember that ". she was only fourteen" line in 'Charmaine'?). And he uses that skill to neat effect in the opening bars of ill Manors. Opening track 'Pity the Plight' starts with a gentle piano line, you hear John Cooper Clarke's gruff, but enveloping voice; you wonder if maybe Ben Drew's easing us in gently here, maybe we'll get JCC on one of his comic turns? Plan B doesn't really 'do' easy rides though and even if he was contemplating it, ill Manors is not the place to start.
Plan B has a point to make here and he's doing so, arguably, with more voracity than he ever has before. In the wake of last year's riots, Plan B has got something to tell us about inner-city living, about poverty, about race, about crime and about the assumptions that various sectors of society make about the people that sometimes serve as little more than stereotypes. The overall tone of the album is something akin to a man standing bare-chested atop a city skyscraper and screaming at the world to sort its sh*t out. What it doesn't do, however, is reek of desperation. Rather, you get Ben Drew's calculated wit, and bare-bones take on the world around him.
Lyrically, listening to Plan B at his harshest (when he's not busy crooning and fooling the world into thinking he's a soul singer) can be likened to having rusty nails pressed into your temples and being shown pictures of your nearest and dearest, whilst a stranger whispers into your ear that this might be the last you ever see of them. Less than a minute into 'Drug Dealer,' he's already branded someone a "racist c*nt" and on 'Deepest Shame,' he makes sure that shame is not confined to the characters in the song. The shame is all yours, dear listener, when you find yourself challenging your own assumptions and ideals. It's not always pleasant, is what we're getting at, here. On 'Playing with Fire,' you get this in full effect. It's tempered with a little of the Plan B that we saw on The Defamation of Strickland Banks but the verses are slick; they hit so hard they can either numb your mind or shake you into consciousness. "now he's just another poster boy for David Cameron's 'broken Britain.'" And it's this moment that the skill that's gone into ill Manors comes to the fore.
The danger with an album like this, is that the message drowns the music or - less probably - vice versa. Luckily, neither sound like an afterthought. Drew employs his usual tricks to good effect, dropping the music right out as he delivers his line about Cameron. It makes you listen to the message. It makes you listen to the music. It was the release of the title track that made everyone sit bolt upright and pay attention to this guy again. Previously, everyone had started to slump on their sofas and breathe a sigh of relief, as he made it easy for us to sit back and enjoy the show, with the nice suits and the brass players; the dusky illicit jazz club vibe that placed him just the wrong distance from your parent's record collection. Now, he's regained some of that fire that made him stand out in the first place. What he's also done though - musically - is retain some of the maturity that he'd found in his Strickland Banks phase.
What Plan B has achieved in ill Manors is to create a concise and pointed case of social commentary, parcelled in music that is unafraid to traipse around those genre boundaries, which seem to matter less and less with every passing year. It You'd need a bold and well-researched stance to completely dismiss Ben Drew's theories on the social inequalities that blight our communities. You'd be even harder pushed to argue that this isn't some of the strongest work that he has created in years.
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