Who knew that northern soul and rap colliding on an album could sound so, so good? With his second album Plan B hasn’t merely made improvements, consolidated his sound and tinkered with it here and there; he’s gone completely about-face, swapping the harsh, gritty soundscapes of life in the UK for a brighter almost summery soul album.
The gritty content remains though; the concept behind the album is of a soul singer, Strickland Banks, who is wrongly accused and convicted of rape and subsequently sent down for his crimes. Now, in no way am I saying Plan B is on the level of Ziggy-era David Bowie, but the premise is still the same and B inhabits the character perfectly, pouring his heart and soul into the ‘role’. On the subject of Ziggy and Bowie, it is interesting to ponder where Plan B could go.
The great triumph of The Defamation of Strickland Banks is the juxtaposition of the lyrical content with the positive music. Northern soul is the order of the day, and it lends the album a relaxed, bright feeling. Take for example, “Welcome to Hell,” a song documenting Banks’ entrance to prison – devoid of grit and raw emotion that may have been present had Plan B stuck to the formula of his debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. By doing this, the album almost remains neutral – with exception of the passionate vocal performances the listener is allowed to make up his or her mind over how they want to feel about Strickland Banks due to the downbeat music.
Nevertheless, there are moments of absolute blistering fury that one would expect from Plan B. “Stay Too Long” starts off sounding like late-’60s Who, then shifts up a gear, barraging the listener with fuzzed guitars and a furious rap, a section that makes recent rap-rocker types Cage The Elephant look like amateurs. The latter half of the album is just as gorgeous musically as the first half is – full of evocative strings and an emotive vocal performance as Strickland Banks, coupled with rap passages interspersed throughout lending a sense of realism and grit to the narrative as Strickland is unsure whether he gets out of prison or not. The juxtaposition is complete in the final track “What You Gonna Do” as the music builds and builds, the character becomes more carefree about his fate with every spoken sentence.
The Defamation of Strickland Banks is most certainly a success. The titular character is given weight and emotion through B’s vision and realistic lyrics and immediately draws the listener in. Had B opted to stay with the hip-hop he was famed for on his debut the emotion and sorrow the listener feels for his character would not occur and by that the album is no longer all-encompassing. The thing that sets this apart from the British Amy Winehouse soul crowd are B’s gritty rap sections; not only providing a link to his past material, but ensuring the album is unique sounding and fresh.