Album: Plan B, Ill Manors (Atlantic)

4.00

Streetwise star's home truths show he's in another class

Though Ben Drew is insistent that Ill Manors is not just the soundtrack to
his recent film, but a separate album in its own right, the frequent
interjections, both around and within tracks, of dialogue from the movie does
rather shackle it to the parent artwork.

Which also means its reach remains restricted to that of the film too: hence, the constant hammering away at the single theme of youth criminalisation on Drew's home turf of Forest Gate, a narrative already familiar from the many similar previous stories that furnish the raw meat of hip-hop mythology. 

But given those restrictions, Plan B acquits himself remarkably well here. With its scathing references to "little rich boys" and the way the Olympic village has been built nearby while local community centres have closed, the track "Ill Manors" itself offers the most impassioned, blistering assault on contemporary hypocrisy that an English musician has made in years. And there's no doubting the vivid, in-your-face manner in which the dystopian tableaux of East End underclass life are sketched, as he outlines the foredoomed fall of an orphaned boy set to be "just another poster-boy for David Cameron's broken Britain". 

There are precious few points of light in the story. Barely into his teens, the protagonist slips into the drug-dealing lifestyle, and is ultimately coerced into killing a friend. Recounted in John Cooper Clarke's brooding, blunt delivery, he's "only 13 years old, a pubescent adolescent, about to learn a very harsh and depressing lesson". Nor are any of the other characters blessed with good fortune: the one female character we meet "was once a princess, now she's just a mess", turning tricks to feed her child. 

Set to dark, looming portents of organ, martial snares, edgily wistful guitar and skeletal piano figures, it's an unforgiving listen, which the presence of guest collaborators such as Cooper Clarke, Kano and Labrinth does little to alleviate. But running through the album is a strong thread of bitter political disgust that prevents the story becoming self-defeatingly exploitative, just another cheap holiday in other people's misery. 

Download: Ill Manors; Pity the Plight; Lost My Way; Live Once

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