Recently released U.K. film Ill Manors is an orgy of heroin shooting galleries, illegal immigrant women enslaved by Russian mobsters, a young bwoy doing his first murders, a cracked-out prostitute pimped for a cell phone, and an infant baby sold for cash and, in a climactic scene, thrown out an apartment window. What caused all this madness? These lost souls are products of broken homes and refugees of foster care. What they need, apparently, are responsible mummies and daddies.
Rapper/producer Ben Drew not only directed and wrote the screenplay for this East London council estate drama, but recorded its soundtrack under his alias, Plan B. Despite achieving two No. 1 albums in his native Britain (including this one), he hasn’t inspired the sort of American cult following that Mike “the Streets” Skinner engendered with his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material. Skinner was as much a satirist as social commentator, evinced by the idle-youth anthem “Geezers Need Excitement”; by comparison, Plan B is deadly serious. On “Sick 2 Def” from the 2006 grime compilation Run the Road II, he banged on an acoustic guitar while angrily rhyming that he’s “Had it up to here, had it up to here / I’m hafta do it Reservoir Dog-style, slice off their ear.” For his second album, 2010’s The Defamation of Strickland Banks, he adopted a soul-boy persona, singing in a light, wavering croon about an obsessed fan who falsely accuses him of rape after a one-night stand.
Ill Manors, by contrast, relies on broad stereotypes of multi-ethnic London ghettos as violent dystopias; as the characters scheme and backstab one another amid a backdrop of Canary Wharf and the Olympic Stadium, we’re told this is the real United Kingdom. Plan B spins his interlocking tales with sympathy for losers like Little Jake, the stickup teen who viciously beats his friend so he can join a gang led by Marcel the corner thug (“Playing with Fire”); and the heroin addict who turns tricks for cash because she doesn’t value her body, a legacy of being molested by her father as a young girl (“Deepest Shame”). “He’s just a kid, so he’s open to manipulation,” the rapper says of Little Jake, who sneaks out of his mum’s flat at night to play with the bad boys. “Now he’s just another poster boy for David Cameron’s broken Britain.”
Guest stars here range from grime vet Kano on “Live Once” to aged punk pioneer John Cooper Clarke, who reads a poem called “Pity the Plight,” lamenting the characters’ wasted lives. But Plan B’s verbal torrent holds center stage. He attacks each song rapid-fire, like a human Teleprinter, and it can be difficult to process every twist in the tale, especially if you haven’t seen the movie. “Pity the Plight” reaches its horrific peak when Chris the drug kingpin forces Jake to shank Marcel to death, and while you lose some context if you aren’t privy to the film’s convoluted machinations, that doesn’t lessen the horror of the tortured shrieks at song’s end, a sound that evokes senseless brutality better than any image could.
Like this record, Strickland Banks required close, repeated listening, but its honeyed retro-soul arrangements worked like a palliative, and heightened our hero’s sense of emotional and physical deprivation. But the music of Ill Manors eschews dreamy pop melancholy for grimy hip-hop warfare. Plan B co-produced much of it with Al Shux (best known for Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”), and their beat for the title track opens with a hard, angular violin arpeggio from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (via Peter Fox’s German rap hit “Alles Neu”). Plan B raises the tension by declaring, “Let’s go on an urban safari / We might see some illegal migrants,” claiming fealty with the salt of the earth: “Oi! I said, oi! What you looking at, you little rich boy?” Then he raises the specter of the 2011 London riots: “Who closed down the community center? / I killed time there, used to be a member / School’s out, rules out / Get your bloody tools out / London’s burning, I predict a riot.”
That thrilling moment sets the tone. Blokes Ed and Aaron slang coke over “I Am the Narrator,” a beat from U.K. producers 16 Bit that turns the “Aquarium” section from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Souls into a lovely loop reminiscent of ’90s boom bap, while Plan B pays tribute to Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.”: “Drugs move everything around me / Thugs making money / My mind my mind is ill y’all.” Such classic hip-hop homages abound: For “Drug Dealer,” he documents Chris the kingpin’s years-long growth from son of a heroin-addicted mother and abused protégé of Kirby the drug dealer, evoking the Pharcyde’s “Runnin'”: “It’s 1995 / Now that he’s older / Stress weighs on his shoulders / Heavy as boulders … He’s been living on the far side since he was a youth.”
Unlike the movie, which decides to tidily wrap up its characters’ plights, the soundtrack eventually leaves the storyline unresolved, so Plan B can revert from narrator to first person. It’s an odd decision — perhaps he’s avoiding spoilers — but it allows him to talk about growing up in the East End, where everyone speaks “code like Morse.” On “Live Once,” he admits he used to be another of the film’s knuckleheads: “We just fuel the fire with our fucked-out philosophy / Like crime’s the only way we get our feet in this economy / But we’re no different from them, honestly / Luck’s the only reason they weren’t born into poverty.” He adds on “Falling Down” that “My art is great / It’s my mind that’s in the darkest place / I can’t erase / The memories I have of darker days,” lending invaluable context to the film’s effective but clichéd ghetto drama.
Still, there is the unfulfilled promise of “Ill Manors” the song, and its portrait of poor, resentful, under-employed youth lashing out at the inequities of the capitalist shitstem. Surely, they aren’t all potential drug dealers and prostitutes, but such a scenario makes for good action flicks. Obviously, hip-hop loves its thugs, too, especially if they’re the antiheroes of a relatively nuanced piece like this one. As a prodigiously talented director and musician, Plan B can afford to play it safe and stick to gangsta-rap tropes, even if he knows that broken Britain’s problems run deeper than that.