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- Posted on Mar 20th 2010 6:00PM by Barnaby Smith
Four years ago, a young man of 22 emerged from the estates of east London with an album in 'Who Needs Actions When You Got Words,' that was as genre-crossing as it was foul-mouthed. Plan B, aka Ben Drew, had made what was predominantly a rap album in debt to his hero, Eminem, yet he also included curious passages of finger-picked acoustic guitar that if not quite John Fahey, was at least a subtle acknowledgment of a world beyond the London hip-hop and grime he found himself immersed in. The title of his debut album was taken from a song by the Meat Puppets, further proving an awareness of ostensibly remote musical styles.
It should come as no surprise then, that Plan B's new album, 'The Defamation of Strickland Banks,' is an excursion into yet another realm. 'Strickland Banks' is essentially a soul album, with Drew's newly-discovered singing voice placed centre-stage. The quickfire rapping is still there in parts, but overall this is a profoundly softer effort, and a comparison can be made between Drew's transformation from abrasive enfant terrible to crooner and the similar path trodden by one of 2009's breakout heroes, Mayer Hawthorne, another to make the effortless change between hip-hop and soul.
But for Plan B, the transition was far from a step into the unknown. It was this music that was his first love, even before hip-hop took hold of him.
"I've been a songwriter from day one and used to be a soul singer," says Drew. "I called myself Plan B because I completely flipped the script and changed my style to do hip-hop. So this is going back my roots, really."
The sound on 'Strickland Banks' has therefore been lurking behind the scenes with Drew for some time. Only a reluctance to release it under the Plan B name, one that had become synonymous with his other self, stood in the way of its full potential.
The solution arrived when Drew decided to create a fictional persona, one Strickland Banks, and there is a film on the way too, telling the story of this soul singer who is sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. Drew, who as an actor appeared alongside Sir Michael Caine in British crime flick 'Harry Brown,' plays Strickland Banks.
"We'd listen back and think these are really good songs, but that it's not gonna work with the whole Plan B thing," says Drew. "So I thought because I was a storyteller I could create this fictional character and design the whole album around him. I incorporated soul music into what Plan B does but made sure that people understood that when they heard me sing it wasn't Plan B singing, it was Strickland Banks."
Drew is keen to stress that the only thing based on personal experience in Strickland Banks' story is dealing with the pressures of fame. Again, removing his own life from his music is another step away from what we knew Plan B as in 2006.
"With my first record I had 20 years of life experience to draw on. By the time I'd finished promoting the first record it was only a year before I started making the next one, so I only had a year of life experience to draw on. I just didn't feel that there was enough there to talk about. So I wanted to invent a fictional character that had his own life experience and had his own s--- that I've never experienced and do a record about that."
Drew says that he "sat in a basement for three years, no holidays or even sunlight, and wrote this album." He also made another hip-hop record, 'The Ballad of Belmarsh,' designed to reflect the time Strickland Banks spends behind bars. He talks of a new album of reggae on the way and another of dubstep, yet amid all this excitement he is keeping the key part of the 'Strickland Banks' jigsaw up his sleeve: what it is Strickland Banks is supposed to have done.
"Right now that's not something I want to disclose," he says. "I think we talk about the album so much that there's no surprises left for anyone. I don't want to say what it is yet. But the album isn't about the crime, 'cos he hasn't committed it. Its about the pitfalls of fame."