A prosperous genre in the UK, British rap is largely overlooked in the US. Not all is merry and gay in England; the amount of hoodies, chavs, and ASBOS (Anti-Social Behavior Orders) alone make a convincing enough argument for chronicles of inner-city British life to provide fodder for the rap mill.
Ben Drew, better known as British rapper Plan B, provided a perfect case in point with his debut, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. An aural escapade through council estate life, its songs concerning incestuous 14-year-olds and necrophilia adventures made calling it dark as a morgue at midnight seem too gentle a description. The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Plan B’s second outing—released in regular and deluxe editions last spring—is considerably lighter and more universal for it.
Despite its big soul sound, the album is far from being a suitable dinner party soundtrack. The Defamation… is a concept album about a fictional soul singer—the Strickland Banks of the album’s title—wrongfully accused of raping a female fan and sent to prison as a result. The rapping has also been reduced significantly, with B’s surprisingly gorgeous soul vocals taking center stage. A few plot patches give the album the effect of being the soundtrack to a gritty UK crime musical, one in which the spoken parts are obscure. The odd outburst of rap therefore serves as exposition, serving significant purpose on songs like “She Said” and “Darkest Place”.
This expository tact works best on “Stay Too Long”, a barnstormer that manages the unthinkable by giving rap-rock a fantastic name. The track is a stellar example of music matching the emotions conveyed in the lyrics, in this case chronicling a rowdy night out. The album is hugely successful at this conveyance throughout, particularly on “Welcome to Hell”, which features a choir that both buoys and devastates the song. “Welcome to Hell” is also one of The Defamation of Strickland Banks‘s most cinematic moments. Although the album is crafted with enough accessibility in mind to assure that songs can easily be separated from the overlying concept, each song is married to specific images, whether they be of Strickland Banks resolving to wear a brave face as a form of defense on his slo-mo descent to his cell (“Welcome to Hell”), crouched in moments of introspection (the surprisingly uplifting “Hard Times”), or pleading his innocence in the court room ( the Smokey Robinson-esque “Free”).
The Defamation of Strickland Banks‘s deluxe edition includes a few remixes and two bonus tracks—“Verses” and “Spend My Money”—which serve the same part as deleted scenes on a DVD; they fail to contribute much to the story, but prolong a completist’s moment of joy. If 2011 proves to be a year in which promising artists get their due respects, then The Defamation of Strickland Banks will provide Plan B with a breach for US success. If we are extra lucky, a new regard for British rap may develop as well. Anyone enamored of nu-soul, strong story telling, and the darker side of British culture has already been rewarded.