Unrelentingly bleak situations depicted with a cinematic eye for detail.
Michael Cragg 2012
During the promotion for his million-selling The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Plan B (aka Ben Drew) regularly discussed his future return to hip hop’s gritty realism. Rumours swirled that his mooted follow-up, The Ballad of Belmarsh, would be self-released after his label 679 questioned its commerciality.
Whatever the truth, …Belmarsh was scrapped in favour of ill Manors, an unrelentingly bleak soundtrack to Drew's directorial debut of the same name. The film's been out for a while, but Drew only finished recording some of these songs two weeks before release. This album’s extended snatches of dialogue, heard out of context, only serve to make the listening experience harder.
Much has been written about the title track – although unreferenced in the film, it’s a visceral piece of modern-day protest. It bristles with energy, a stirring Shostakovich string sample ramping up the drama before an explosion of drum’n’bass takes the song in a bloodier, more violent direction.
It's followed by I Am the Narrator – the first song to be heard in the film – in which Drew describes the world we're about to enter: one of childhood drug dealers, racist attacks and prostitutes working to pay for heroin. It’s a world that Drew depicts with a cinematic eye for detail.
The excellent Drug Dealer tells of a nine-year-old boy attacked by a racist friend of his prostitute mum, while the claustrophobic The Runaway talks of “drugged-up girls dressed up like naughty tarts”. There are moments of salvation in Deepest Shame, but this is not an album dealing in light and shade. Even the usually chipper Labrinth produces Playing With Fire, with its chorus of “One day you'll learn that when you get burned it will be too late”.
On Lost My Way Drew sounds genuinely hopeless: “If you don't believe in something then you'll fall for anything,” he intones, more a sigh of frustration than a rallying cry. This sense of impotence is confirmed by closer Falling Down, a counterpoint to the energy of the opener.
But perhaps that's the statement that Drew is making: no matter how hard people try to rail against something, reality has a way of bringing you back down.