Finally Ben Drew’s fourth album becomes actual rather than imminent: he was trailing it in the Guardian 11 months ago, when he was talking it up as an “art statement”, and he premiered much of it at a one-off London show last summer.
The single In the Name of Man, released in May 2017, doesn’t appear on the album, and Heartbeat, which does, peaked at No 100 last autumn. All of which suggests what is euphemistically known as “a troubled gestation”.
It’s not surprising Drew wanted to take time over his first album since 2012. After all, his career has been marked by distinctly different and perfectly executed phases: sink-estate horror rapper, sharp-suited soul man, chronicler of modern Britain. The good news is that Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose doesn’t stand still. Drew is singing again, not rapping, and he dips into dancehall, R&B, drum’n’bass, gospel testifying and as many more styles as you can shake a stick at. The bad news is that the amount of time he’s spent seems to have made him unsure of his identity. There’s neither the comforting familiarity of The Defamation of Strickland Banks, nor the confrontational abrasiveness of Ill Manors. It feels as though he’s trying to split the difference between them.
Lyrically, too, Drew seems less focused. It’s not that he’s shying away from big themes, more that the themes are too big for him to bring his gift for specificity to bear, so he ends up offering platitudes: “The situation worsens while we wait for things to change / Cause the ones we expect to put things right / Are the real ones here to blame,” suggests the title track. It’s all a bit think-about-it-yeah; he can be so much better.