46:11 min • Atlantic • July 23, 2012
Ever since my visual senses were violated (in a good way) by Plan B’s debut film iLL Manors, I’ve been more than curious to hear the soundtrack. Not totally satisfied with Plan B’s last, very commercial offering, the million selling The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, I had been eagerly awaiting new material that would bring him back to his roots. Described by Ben as a musical, the songs from iLL Manors are used to narrate the story, so I wondered how they would translate into what Ben had described as his third studio album. The answer is, they do and they don’t.
In many ways, this is exactly what I expected from Ben. I was a big fan before the housewives discovered their suited cheeky East End soul toy-boy. A chav Daniel Merriweather, in some respects. The biggest surprise for me with iLL Manors is the large use of vocal clips from the film, which puts songs in their correct context. The whole story could be related brilliantly if there were a few more, and if the idea had been expanded on with perhaps even more spoken word from Ben to explore these complicated and intricate tales. Unfortunately, the flip side to this is that it makes it very difficult to listen to the songs as stand alone tracks as they are always meshed into their context within the film, and anyone who does not know the plot is left with no surprises.
Ben has drip fed us songs from the album over some time now. He released the title track, inspired by the London riots, ‘iLL Manors’ on an unsuspecting public who were used to his chart soul stylings. ‘iLL Manors’ set the tone for the film completely, with its heavy beats and genre crossing samples and production. It tells the story not only of disadvantaged youth, but of disadvantaged society, and in that sense is the most punk record I’ve heard in years. Out of great despair comes great art and as Plan B himself says at the end of the album, on the brilliant ‘Falling Down’, (also leaked before the album was released),
Can’t understand how this artist paints.
My art is great –
and ‘iLL Manors’ the song is as close to the perfect protest song our generation has. It does exactly what Ben intended, it speaks for people who have no voice.
Elsewhere, he released the aforementioned ‘Falling Down’, and ‘Lost My Way’ on youtube (the latter with a video filmed at different venues during his summer Forest tour last year) and with each drip I received I got more excited. The music was difficult to take in whilst watching the film, the story was so harrowing that I found myself focusing on Plan B’s words as narrator rather than the sonic effect of the music itself, which means that hearing these as songs is almost like hearing them for the first time.
The material is scarily good. Violent, emotional and raw, this is more than a rap album. The songs are stories, urban poetry set to music. While his monster hit The Defamation Of Strickland Banks was an East London Soul poem, focusing on the story of one man wrongly accused and imprisoned for rape, iLL Manors is a much more adventurous affair, with 6 stories intertwined, each song forming part of each character’s story.
Whilst it’s impossible to separate the songs from their context in the film, it’s also almost impossible to take them individually. The album is an opus, where each song is vital and none is more important or better than another. With his usual lyrical recklessness, one of my favourite moments is on the albums third track, the deceptively dark ‘Drug Dealer’, where he managers to rhyme “National Front” with “cunt”. On the flip side of the offensive, we have ‘Deepest Shame’, previously known as ‘Michelle’ and included in Ben’s short film of the same name, which is the most commercial thing on here, and the song that just may draw the Strickland Banks fans to this masterwork. This remix is very different to its previous incarnation and also how we hear it in the film – is soulful and heartfelt. The accompanying video, embellishing Michelle’s story from her abusive childhood to her decent into prostitution and drug addiction, is powerful and moving, showing Michelle naked and seemingly washing herself clean of her destructive life, but at the same time every inch a pop video, maximising the song’s hit potential.
While we try to find stand-outs (a difficult thing on such a strong record) I must mention the distressing ‘Pity The Plight’. Its spoken word chorus is delivered by legendary performance poet John Cooper Clarke,
Their christian mothers were lazy perhaps, leaving it up to the school,
Where the moral perspective is hazy perhaps,
and the climate oppressively cool.
Give me an acre of cello’s, pitched at some distant regret,
Pity the fate of young fellows and their anxious attempts to forget.
setting it apart from much of the album. It’s interesting and harrowing, with Clarke’s vocal and sentiment as jarring as it is beautiful, but it contains far too many spoilers that give away the plot line of the film. Yes, the vocal samples from the film in this setting make it even more harrowing (and had me weeping on the bus just as much as I did the first time around in the cinema) but they will ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t already seen it.
I know Ben’s argument may be that his fans will have already seen it, and he isn’t making his music for anyone else. But for a film with such a limited cinema release (I only just caught it, and I live in London) making the soundtrack so plot heavy is a dangerous move. So much of the impact of the film was in its twists and turns, particularly in the story arc of young thug Jake, covered on the album in highlights ‘Playing With Fire’ and ‘Pity The Plight’, so the choice to take that away from a future audience is a strange one. Nevertheless, it works for me, conjuring up the films visual assault with every word.
This isn’t just about Plan B’s brilliant spoken word, the music is also flawless too. From the classical sample in ‘I Am The Narrator’ to the mournful acoustic guitar that explodes into distorted bass on ‘Playing With Fire’, mastered by producer de jour Labrinth, Ben expertly fuses styles, and in many ways this album is not dissimilar to his debut if he’d made it with money. It recalls the raw storytelling, the griminess, and indie, rock and folk influenced hip hop soundtrack to his own life which was Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words. Ben is the same man he was back then, with the same lyrical power and the same influences, but he has bigger toys to play with, and this makes for a more accessible album, which encompasses genre after genre, ranging from the soulful and the urban, to the Rage Against The Machine inspired ‘Great Day For A Murder’ and the mournful drum’n’bass of previously mentioned ‘Falling Down’. The latter, with its trippy drum’n’bass conclusion and distorted vocal (which on first listen I was damn sure was Thom Yorke) didn’t leave my iPhone for the first few days I had it. The perfect end to a powerful record. It’s up there with my favourite things Ben has done. With its final message of,
You get up off the ground,
Take a look around,
Dust yourself off
That’s when they knock you back down –
the album ends with the same Groundhog Day feel that brings the film to a close – playing with the idea that whatever we have just experienced and witnessed, life goes on, and we go on. A powerful statement for such a harrowing vision of life in modern London.
Essentially, I don’t want to give too much away. As much as I am dying to recommend this album as highly as I can to anyone that will listen, with iLL Manors coming out on DVD in October, I’d advise anyone with an interest in Plan B as the incredible artist that he is, to wait. See the film first. If you’ve seen the film, the album is a must have. A brilliantly produced accompaniment to one of the best films of the year, and certainly the most exciting debut feature film I’ve seen in recent memory. Just remember to get some tissues, or skip ‘Playing With Fire’ when on public transport.