When Cheryl Cole was forced to pull out of Jonathan Ross’ chat show last month due to some sort of mysterious illness (why of course), her replacement was the not quite so famous Plan B. Nothing odd in that, you might think, accept that Plan B first came to our attention as an extremely angry, very foul mouthed rapper with an acoustic guitar. Hardly maninstream TV fare. Listen to the first couple of tracks on his second album however and he certainly seems to have mellowed, mellowed to the point of turning into Terrence Trent D’Arby. The chat show programmers may love it but it’s not an encouraging start.
What that beginning fails to suggest though, is just what an incredible achievement The Defamation Of Strickland Banks has turned out to be. Gone is the London council estate Eminem vibe and its talk of stabbing people in the eye with a biro, replaced by an old school soul touch that Mark Ronson would envy. Compared to the anodyne muck that typifies soul music these days this has the spirit of the classic names coursing through its veins, a record that roars with genuine spirit and crackles with life.
It’s far more than a simple retro experience, however. Plan B has left those rather one-dimensional roots behind (inspired no doubt by his recent successful foray into the world of acting) and set out to craft a record that combines the aforementioned soul sound with a multi-strand narrative and cohesive set of lyrics. Yes, in less flowery terms, it’s a concept album. If he was looking to put some clear blue water between himself and fellow Brit rapper Mike Skinner then perhaps this wasn’t the best approach on paper. Yet, while The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free was a story based in something approaching reality (apart from the money down the back of the TV), Strickland Banks is an apparently far more fiction based character – an old school soul singer who ends up in prison when convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s an approach that’s not without its potential pitfalls. Those patchy opening tracks serve simply to set the scene, fine as part of the overall concept but hardly guaranteed to be on repeat listening. Thankfully, however, the idea doesn’t get in the way of the record. Indeed, without knowing the background you’d be hard pushed to spot that particular aspect. What is more noticeable is Plan B’s split personality, singing sweet soul one moment and reverting to his white boy rap the next – ‘Stay Too Long’ sounds not unlike Rage Against The Machine tackling Northern Soul. Work through the album and you’ll find pop songs nestling next to foul mouthed rage, shades of rock next to those shades of soul and generally the sound of a young artist reaching for the stars and hitting every single one.