A few years back, if you’d laid a bet on a British rapper turning out a film script, the odds would have been on Mike “the Streets” Skinner. With his grasp of dialogue and nuanced take on the vulnerabilities of British geezerdom, Skinner was already writing cinematic vignettes that turned effortlessly into videos. Last year he announced vague plans for “a punchy thriller” set in a hospital. Instead, it’s Ben “Plan B” Drew who has graduated into being a pop star with big-screen credits. His excellent soul suite hit of 2010, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, garnered Drew sufficient clout to finance and direct his debut feature film,Ill Manors.
Skinner and Drew are radically different urban bards. Skinner probably has the edge in observational subtlety, the stuff that oils the wheels of drama and wins awards. Drew is a spittle-flecked ambassador from hell, representing his “ends” with the generous lubrication of bodily fluids. Blood, sweat and tears are well represented in Ill Manors, film and score — to which we can add urine and vomit. He deserves a medal. But he probably won’t get many gongs because he says things very directly.
Symbiotically linked to the film of the same name, Plan B’s return to hip-hop (his 2006 debut was a rap album) is a fierce polemic that impresses and frustrates in equal measure. Over 11 tracks, six of which appear in the film, it excels at bearing witness to the workaday horrors of London’s eastern postcodes. The album’s widescreen production values courtesy of money men such as Labrinth and mainstay Al Shux underline the great leaps forward Drew has made since his early records. It’s polished and ferocious.
You know this is an emotionally serious record because we’re frequently in the company of arpeggiating pianos and soul samples. The title track literally shouts “oi!” at you, playing off staccato strings against rock dynamics. Written after the film, the track Ill Manors ties last summer’s London riots into Drew’s underclass tragedy. It’s clear that its incendiary lyrics are there to bait the Daily Mail, but the song’s shock tactics mask what is essentially a heavy-handed sociology lecture. This is not the kind of track the post-grime set will be buying. No one, not even a sociology lecturer, warms to the leaden words “David Cameron’s broken Britain” (a small nadir in Playing With Fire).
Happily, the title track is false advertising too, because the substance of Ill Manors its righteous storytelling, its propulsive undercarriage is more gripping than the title track implies. I Am the Narrator may dash busily through a string of sonic cliches police sirens and the like but its blend of warped fairy tale strings, dub bass and antic Dr Dre swagger persuades the ear. The percussion rolls even harder on Drug Dealer, the album’s standout. Offset against beats that seem to be made out of punched walls, guest singer Takura (Chase and Status) provides a wise, sad dancehall chorus.
Drug Dealer and Playing With Fire are the rapped ballads of two of the principal characters in the film (drug dealer Chris and the impressionable young Jake), and Drew really feels for them and their rotten childhoods, the terrible odds stacked against them, their mistakes, so easily made. The incursion of punk poet John Cooper Clarke on Pity the Plight, when the two brutalised men-children finally meet, is a masterstroke. Both the film and album will be misunderstood as being packed with gangsta cliches — sex, brutality — but Drew emerges as a pitbull fuelled not just by anger but by compassion.