The three Plan Bs we’ve known to date have been clear-cut. There was Ben Drew, the rapper from the east-London estate, expelled from school and rehabilitated through music, recounting visceral stories about crackheads and youth violence on his 2006 debut ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’. Then came the Motown reinvention: he ditched the hoodie, pulled on a sharp suit, became Strickland Banks and wrong-footed everyone by unveiling that soulful voice with an album that sounded like Amy Winehouse and sold like Simply Red. Come 2012, ‘iLL Manors’ was a switch-back and a shock, no doubt, to some. An album that served as the soundtrack to his brutal film of the same name, it was a graphic dramatisation of inner-city poverty that also attacked the demonisation of the working class in “David Cameron’s Broken Britain”. And then… then, nothing. Exhausted, he withdrew from public view.
After six years away, ‘Heaven Before…’ is Plan B’s back-to-work album. But in between, something transformative has entered Drew’s life: love – specifically the experience of becoming a father for the first time. This is not the venomous guy of old. If anything, his fourth album is the sound of Plan B unburdening himself of a lot of his anger. Signals of that new relaxed Drew aren’t just in the lyrics, but also in the music and the process. For example, he allowed other songwriters, such as Foy Vance, in for the first time.
Where his previous albums have always picked an definitive lane, this one criss-crosses styles, and not all successfully. Let’s start with the good stuff: opening track ‘Grateful’ sets the scene, the first time fresh parenthood – a recurring theme – gets aired. The album’s title track and ‘Heartbeat’ – with its huge late-’90s Massive Attack chorus – are the shining moments where Drew’s familiar bite and melodic hooks collide.
Stylistically, the rest is kind of scatty. ‘Queue Jumping’ could be a Major Lazer tune, ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ has a mellow EDM-flavour and ‘Mercy’ is part UK garage. The dancehall-influenced ‘Wait So Long’ is probably the weakest point. But it’s not all Mellow Dad. On ‘Guess Again’ – the most upbeat track here – he’s keen to remind people he hasn’t forgotten his gritty beginnings.
The big takeaway here is that Plan B isn’t as seething as he once was – something that’s definitely good for his blood pressure, less so for those wanting urgency and vitriol. You only need to compare the lyrics on 2006’s ‘Kids’ (“Pick up an AK and spray / That’s the mentality of kids today / F*ck a girl and get her pregnant underage”) to this album’s closing track and positivity anthem ‘Sepia’ (“Dark in a corner as you bathe me in light / You’re a rainbow in a grey and cloudy sky”) to illustrate how this is a different guy.
They may not have been perfect, but Plan B’s prior albums have never been disjointed. ‘Heaven…’ is. But, by his own admission, this is a songwriter in transition. In that respect, this album is as true to life as anything else he’s done before.