Plan B loves a bit of drama. The rapper, singer, actor and film director also known as Ben Drew has chosen an arresting venue – Shakespeare’s Globe – to stage his live return, in anticipation of a forthcoming album. It is as yet untitled, and five years in the making.
Yes, there was his short outing for Radio 1 in May, but this mock-Elizabethan roofless tourist spot witnesses the first airing of many of the songs that will form Plan B’s fourth album overall. It is sung, not rapped, and recalls The Defamation of Strickland Banks – Plan B’s 2010 hit album – more than it does 2012’s eye-opening Ill Manors. Really, though, you can hear the confluence of both, in a socially-conscious set of tunes that somehow conspire to be party music. Closing the main set, Wait So Long is a reggae-disco tune that recalls Boney M – and in a good way.
Stark cultural divides are alive and well in 2017, and at first Drew’s choice of venue suggests a polemical incursion of popular culture into a refined space. This Forest Gate rapper railed at gentrification and class cruelty on Ill Manors – a furious film-cum-album that marked his directorial debut.
Actually, the Globe proves a terrific backdrop; it is used with intelligence and verve. As 20th-century conflict footage plays out on screens at the back of the stage, an army of little plastic toy parachutists flutter poignantly down from the gods as the new single In the Name of Man – a modern, bleak take on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – plays out.
Plan B’s excellent band – this five-piece can play effortless live drum’n’bass – are all wearing masks. More are handed out to denizens of the circle. The reason becomes a little clearer when, at the end of a new tune called Queue Jumping, Drew also puts on a mask. He seems to be sauntering around the stage, but really it’s a doppelganger. The real Plan B is on his way to the circle with an acoustic guitar.
Surrounded by masked associates, he delivers a pair of radically different songs – Love Goes Down (Strickland-era soul) and the incandescent Kidz (rapped, inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor) – as those standing turn around and gaze up at the back of the theatre (groundlings, they were once called). More to the point, the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day would have found much to savour in Drew’s songs, which tell of love, betrayal, injustice and revenge.
Being underestimated is all grist to Drew’s mill, of course. As a teen, he wanted to sing; when plan A backfired, he became a rapper with a guitar for 2006’s Who Needs Actions When You Got Words; a kind of precursor to Ed Sheeran, perhaps. Nobody imagined that east London’s would-be Eminem would re-emerge as a vintage soul crooner on a hit concept album. Even then, few foresaw that – like his fellow traveller, the Streets’s Mike Skinner – Drew would then be drawn to visual storytelling, and pull it off. Yes, Ill Manors had plot holes – does the stolen baby ever get fed or changed? – but the film cemented the career of fellow rapper/actor Riz Ahmed (Rogue One’s Bodhi Rook) and continued Drew’s mission to expose the brutal lives being endured within coin-throwing distance of London’s tallest financial institutions.
Fatherhood has moved Drew’s story on; physically, he is almost unrecognisable. Still dapper, but with longer hair slicked back, he has lost the puffiness of youth (and Jack Daniels) but none of his intensity. You can feel Drew’s frustration at the technical problems marring the night. He can’t hear himself, and some songs have to be restarted more than once. On Heartbeat, another new song, a guitar has to be replaced. “I’m glad you all don’t know what that one’s supposed to sound like,” he notes.
Grateful, meanwhile, could be a Strickland Banks outtake: Drew is animated and restless, and the musicians strain every sinew, like a soul revue band. A number of warm, thoughtful, retro takes on love provide some balance: even as he expresses horror at humanity’s failings on In the Name of Man, redemption, Plan B implies, may now be closer to hand.