We've had to wait a very long time for a record like this.
In the Nineties, two songs defined the relationship between overclass and underclass: Pulp's "Common People" and Manic Street Preachers' "A Design For Life". Ben Drew has dragged their themes into the even harsher realities of this century; Jarvis's dog in the corner waiting to "tear your insides out" is no longer a simile but literal, and the Manics' proles who "only want to get drunk" are now smoking crack.
The Ill Manors project – a movie and soundtrack album – was trailed by the phenomenal, Shostakovich-sampling title track, and its mindblowing video. "Ill Manors" flipped hug-a-hoodie logic around 180 degrees, its message: "you're RIGHT to fear the poor; here's WHY". A thrilling response to the riots, it was an icicle down the spine, menacing George Osborne & co from across the street.
From second track "I Am the Narrator" onwards, which samples Saint-Saëns and borrows the Wu-Tang Clan's eerie atmospherics, Ill Manors – the album – continues in a similar vein. Commendably, after the excellent Defamation of Strickland Banks, Drew has realised that another album of retro soul would have been redundant, and returned to the roots of grime-flavoured debut Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, a bleak series of tales about getting shanked in bus shelters et al. This time around, he's zoomed out to the bigger picture. Like an audio equivalent of The Wire, it lays bare the causal connections between the macro and the micro, political corruption and callousness and street-level disorder and despair. We're reminded of its purpose as a soundtrack by the sounds of shattering Molotov cocktails, fists crunching into faces, and dialogue featuring dodgy deals, but within the songs themselves he conjures a world of pregnant heroin addicts, National Front veterans and abused children turning to prostitution.
Collaborators and cameos include Labrinth and Kano, but the most telling is John Cooper Clarke, a social realist from a different generation, on "Pity the Plight". The poet who once delivered the line "Keith Joseph smiles, and a baby dies" is the perfect fit here. The difference between the two is that while Clarke's "Beasley St" has gentrified to "Beasley Boulevard", Drew describes the districts that gentrification left behind. In years to come, Ill Manors will be recognised as a damning document of Cameron's Britain. But that can wait. In the present, this is one of the most exhilarating albums of the year.
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