Listening to deft lyricism of Ben Drew’s third album I’m struck by what a disservice so many successful MCs do to hip hop. Rap – or at least RnB and euro club derivatives are big in the UK right now, but there’s been no corresponding raise in quality. Despite passing his prime some years back, Jay-Z is treated as someone sort of orality God, feted as much in the Guardian as he is on 1Xtra, while the decidedly average chancer Professor Green can top the charts with hollow confessionals shamelessly cloned from Eminem hits. Dizzee Rascal and Wiley have both realised that spitting uncomfortable truths didn’t sell records (although Dizzee’s recent freebie Dirty Stank mixtape had some great moments, and Wiley always keeps pumping out crazed freestyles for the underground), whilst grime’s other great MCs, artists such as D Double E, JME and Ghetts, will probably never break through unless they give in and record some mindless pop hooks.
Basically it’s been a very, very long time since I listened to a major label hip hop release and found the lyricism dazzling, searing, and inventive – all the things that made me love the form so passionately in the first place . What a relief then; during the best moments of iLL Manors, that’s exactly what Plan B delivers.
The single biggest influence on the album is the work of the Wu Tang Clan, their gutter beats, doom laden piano stabs, haunted soul samples, and pitch black imagery recognisable on every track. The connection is made explicit on I Am the Narrator, where Drew, over a heavy kick snare and dreamy sample of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals reconfigures the Wu’s classic C.R.E.A.M.- changing the chorus to ‘drugs rule everything around me’. It sets the stall out for his bleak story of ghetto no hopers, forgotten or hated by society, and one another.
He tells the story of Chris, a drug dealer, and the various scummy characters that shaped him, starting with his birth to a junkie mum and moving through his life until he inevitably grows up to become just another bastard. On album centrepiece, the excellent Lost My Way, Drew finally points a finger at the trap he deems is to blame- “Corporate machines trying to sell you shit you don’t need// On the television and on the ad breaks between//And the people only cared about material things… And I’m guilty of it to// Or so it seems// I’ve lost my way.”
The album is relentless – in fact it could do with being less so- Drew finds absolutely nothing to laugh about in his tales of prostitution, drug abuse and violence, and sometimes you feel like pointing out that life, even at the shitty end of the stick, has light as well as shade. The closest he comes to easing off is on the grim humour of raging punk track Great Day for a Killing – “What a great day to go get a gun//Go and take your anger out on everyone// If you’re out of ammunition go and buy the Sun// And read up on all the council house and violent scum”
Outside of that there’s little to smile over, but plenty to admire. On Live Once Drew extends a Monopoly metaphor over several razor sharp bars that start in the lucky land of Oxford Street and end up in Old Kent Rd – ‘the ends you deemed to cheap to invest in’. Album opener, and lead single iLL Manors still sounds great, the bastard child of The Prodigy’s anti establishment bombast, given slyly ironic lyrics designed to bait liberals and conservatives alike. And on the downbeat closer Drew concludes ‘I know they can’t knock me down if I keep on falling’ over a beat that’s part freaked out Pink Floyd swirl, part shuffling boom bap bass.
iLL Manors is an uncomfortable album- probably more so for Plan B’s record label than for the rapper himself. After the mass success of The Defamation of Strickland Banks it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Drew to mine a few more albums of blue eyed soul- the British public are certainly still eager for it. Instead he’s chosen a far harder route, making a piece of work that he believes in, that is almost certain to alienate half of his fanbase, whilst simultaneously enraging the idiots who shrilly equate expressing urban frustrations with condoning and glamorising them. For me however, this is a great record, one that cements his place in a hip hop pantheon that stretches from Chuck D to Immortal Technique. Boy done good.