“If you don’t believe in something, then you’ll fall for anything,” Plan B snarls on the forlorn “Lost My Way”, and the solemn 28-year-old rapper is big on “belief”. However, we get precious little actual dialogue tonight at this desperately hip album launch, with almost certainly the poshest soap of any venue toilet in London.
Plan B (actual name Ben Drew) is a serious artist, who is very keen on the concept album. His breakthrough second record, The Defamation of Strickland Banks told the story of a wayward soul singer who is wrongly convicted for rape and finds some sort of redemption. It’s a compelling and cinematic record that shows off Plan B’s sweet (but perilously close to Charles & Eddie) soul voice. It also sold over a million records.
The latest slice of concept is Ill Manors, which charts a youngster becoming embroiled in the local drugs trade. On this, Plan B raps about prostitutes on heroin and racist assaults and the record dominates tonight’s fleeting experience, which takes place in a London warehouse reminiscent of Arthur Daley’s lock up.
There’s an awful lot of swaggering, posturing and flashing lights on stage, but Drew doesn’t really feel like the voice of a generation here. Public Enemy’s Chuck D had the good grace to provide a lucid, impassioned preamble before his most incendiary songs, Plan B provides nothing. No explanation. No show. It’s not really a show. And hip-hop music often needs some show.
Unlike fellow rappers and chroniclers of urban life, Mike Skinner and Jamie T, Drew’s tracks also lack wit, which is fine but his “protest” songs need to be exceptionally good to compensate. The highlight tonight is the feverish “Ill Manors” (the same name as Drew’s bleak debut film, which is distractingly screened on a wall throughout the performance), which is a (sort of) protest song (a rare thing in a market dominated by electro-pop and soppy pop) in which the Forest Gate-born singer protests “Oi there’s a chav/ That means council house and violent/ He’s got a hoodie on give him a hug/ On second thoughts don’t wanna get mugged”. It’s by a country mile the most robust track at this estranging gig.
However, there are some memorable guest spots, particularly from the punk poet John Cooper Clarke performing “Pity the Plight of Young Fellows” and Chase and Status’ Takura Tendayi’s brief turn on the exceptional “Drug Dealer”. A fluctuating experience then, much like Plan B’s career thus far, and you suspect the best is yet to come from this hugely talented artist.