[11 June 2007]
Following on from a digital sampler EP a few months ago, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words is the debut album from the acclaimed 23-year-old London rapper Ben Drew, aka Plan B. For unacquainted folks in the US, the record is a fittingly grimy introduction to Drew’s world of forgotten, decaying sink estates overrun with crack and smack, teenage violence, underage sex and broken families. Yep, it’s the perfect soundtrack to your summer.
Since its release last year, the album has attracted attention and no shortage of glowing reviews over in the UK, mainly for Drew’s spitting, obscenely angry rapping, and the uncompromising themes of his expletive strewn lyrics. And though, for some strange reason, these reviews failed to translate into mega sales for this most uncompromising of albums, it was clear that Drew was a major new voice in the underwhelming world of UK hip-hop. And at its best, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words showcases a voice that breaks from your speakers and demands to be heard.
A year later, the opening track here, “Kidz” remains a terrifying picture of a teenager tearing through an anarchic spree of murder, rape and muggings. Drew raps, “What do I care its not like I’m going to get caught / Anyways, killing ain’t a crime it’s a fuckin’ blood sport”, and shows the song’s 14-year old protagonist to be both pitiable and deeply unsettling—especially when you consider that the story is based around the real life fatal stabbing in 2000 of London schoolboy Damilola Taylor. Elsewhere, “Dead and Buried” is a stark and strangely touching rap about the freewheeling consequences that befall young adults who variously, indulge in unprotected sex, heroin use and violence as retribution, and inevitably all end up “... dead and buried / As good as already half-dead”. Drew almost manages to sound loved-up on “Charmaine”, as the street corner conversation unfolds with street vulgarities and acute observations falling over each other until the almost saccharine sweet R&B ballad reaches its blunt-as-a-brick payoff—and Drew reveals that the girl he’s just sexed is 14-years old.
“Sick 2 Def” is just as powerful, and features a dizzying final few verses where the song’s murder is rewound with cinematic panache until the would-be killer is at home, hours before the incident, nodding his head to Plan B’s CD. It’s the sort of track that recalls Eminem at his most unflinching, before he hooked up with Akon and lost the plot. Songs like this, and in particular the devastatingly personal, and despite the title, hateful lyrical assassination of this father, “I Don’t Hate You”, reveal Plan B as a terrifically talented wordsmith—and at times, through the bravado and shock tactics, a harsh, unerring voice of reason.
And while all this shock and awe is impressive, it can’t hide the fact that getting through 14 tracks, and over an hour of this stuff is a punishing, grueling experience. The constant procession of beatings, rapes, diseases and threats has the effect of deadening the senses. By the time we reach the second half of the record, Drew’s stories all seem to bleed into each other in a battered mess. It’s telling that presently, Britain’s greatest rapper, Dizzie Rascal covers similar ground to Drew, but his songs are shot through with such scattergun excitement and giddy musical energy that it remains surprising and vital from track to track. Too often, the music on Who Needs Actions When You Got Words is as grey and bleak as the lyrics. The best hooks, like the nod to Prodigy on “No Good”, are nicked, and without significant variety in the backing tracks, large chunks of the album slide by in a wash of rudimentary guitar and booming computer beats.
It’s a shame that this music doesn’t reflect the invention and spark of the words, because shorn of the hip-hop backing and pared down to just voice and guitar, Plan B possesses a certain raw power and vitality. Even when his tormented monologues come across a bit like a lecture, at least it’s a devilishly expletive strewn one, that kids might actually want to listen to. In that sense, as a social document of a country riddled by inner city despair, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words is a resounding success… as an album that you will listen to again once the initial tremor of the lyrics has worn off, Plan B, despite the hype and bravado, falls some way short.