Courtesy of Atlantic Records
Plan B. Courtesy of Atlantic Records
It starts out with a buzz-saw of a string sample, drops in words like a whiplash and then carries on stinging. With a burning scorn for society, Plan B's "Ill Manors" is a bitterly articulate howl of underclass rage that's a national sensation in Britain, where it's at Number 2 on the album charts. Starting with a typical British street holler, the song is a rallying-cry for class war: "Oi! I said, Oi! / What you looking at you little rich boy? / We're poor round here / Run home and lock your door / Don't come 'round here no more / You could get robbed for real / You know my manor's ill." The machine-gun delivery is startling, jabbing — and when the harsh, skittery drum patterns kick in, the track's attack is on.
For the uninitiated, in Britain one's "manor" is not an ancestral stately home, or only for a very few. More commonly, it's non-rhyming Cockney slang for your 'hood, the area you inhabit and maybe even control. Originally, "manor" was the patois of East London gangsters like the notorious Kray brothers, who terrorized the East End in the 1960s even while scattering charity among children and the elderly.
These days the "manor" that their knifemen stalked is full of art galleries and wine bars, demarcating the exact social gap that the lyrics of "Ill Manors" depict; nearby are the tough council estates (British projects) where Plan B, born Ben Drew, himself grew up with his single mother and her crackhead boyfriend. It's where he bounced between schools and found artistic inspiration from a teacher in the Special Referral Unit where he was sent for being exceptionally difficult.
Right now, the Olympics are being held in all their global glory just down the road from those violent council estates that Plan B describes so vividly, where hard drugs are as cheap as life, or less so. Sarcastically, he rat-a-tat-tats: "We got an Eco-friendly government / They preserve our natural habitat. / Built an entire Olympic village around where we live without pulling down any flats / Give us free money and we don't pay any tax."
Although Plan B was already developing the Ill Manors film when last year's riots erupted in the U.K., they prompted him to write this song. Now it's the title track of the movie, which he scripted and is his directorial feature debut. More Plan B tracks punctuate the film as commentary.
Even before his full-length feature, Plan B had already proved his adaptability and chameleon skills. Though he'd started out as an R&B singer, he decided to rap on his first album, Who Needs Action When You Got Words, released in 2006. It did less well than he'd hoped, so he switched back and invented a Soul Man persona for a cinematic concept album, 2010's The Defamation of Strickland Banks. The success of the rise and fall of his alter ego's mini-opera meant that at last Plan B could do pretty much whatever he wanted, on a far larger scale — which meant reverting to Plan A and hip-hop.
It's understandable to be suspicious of overachievers who think they can do everything. Isn't being a top pop star enough, Plan B? All too often it really is hubris (even Madonna's healthy ego must have some self-doubt about her cinematic career). But Plan B seems to be one of the few that get it right. In fact, film was always his love and he used money from album deals to make the short that he expanded into Ill Manors. Reports of the death of protest music are much exaggerated, and Plan B is situating himself in a long line of rappers painting gritty but ultimately compassionate inner-city pictures (just one example, the New York rapper Nas, currently occupies the same spot Plan B does on the American album charts) — now he gets to tell those stories in both music and movies.
Some U.K. observers have criticized Plan B for what they see as grandstanding agit-pop. Perhaps surprisingly, Plan B has criticized the London rioters, and even supported the rights of banks and insurance companies, in an editorial he wrote for the populist daily newspaper, The Sun — taking an unusual position for an artist whose work projects anarchy.
But inconsistencies fade when "Ill Manors" parachutes you into the tortuous, brutal scramble for survival of his seething, frustrated protagonists, for whom this song is their real National Anthem: "Who closed down the community center? / I killed time there, used to be a member / What will I do now 'til September? / School's out, rules out, get your bloody tools out / London's burning, I predict a riot."
Plan B's message of ruthless social Darwinism, hopes dashed and youth trapped, is falling on fertile ground in an increasingly divided Britain. His bleak but dynamic vision is very relevant to America, and the many countries in the world which are also suffering from the U.K. disease of Two Nations, rich and poor. Taking Plan B's "urban safari" is a timely reminder that the projects in big cities often appear to be set on another, more violent planet than the leafier, wealthier, easier parts of town.