Hidden Gem: Plan B’s ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’

Selected by: Fred Garratt-Stanley

It was the soulful, polished concept-album The Defamation Of Strickland Banks that garnered Ben Drew, aka Plan B, global acclaim in 2010. The record’s slick, Motown-inspired instrumentation and tales of squandered fame were a stark contrast to the Forest Gate native’s 2006 debut, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, a darker outing which saw Drew spit harrowing rhymes about shallow graves and religious exorcism. In truth, Plan B has always blended styles—from hip-hop and soul to jazz and R&B—and we got to hear this in its raw element through his debut album, which just celebrated its 15th birthday and remains a solid listen all these years later.

Submerged in the murky depths of East London, Who Needs Actions... is a shockingly raw account of a complex youthhood shaped by proximity to poverty, inequality, violence and loss. A dense set of stories which showcased Drew’s lyrical prowess and deft storytelling from Track 1, it’s an album that only he could have birthed. Where later releases featured a broader scope and greater political awareness, Plan B’s debut was insular, focused on a world he knew well, and committed sonically to the raw, self-taught musical skills he associated with this background. The acoustic guitar plays a big role in the album’s textured instrumentals; the harsh, discordant strums which pepper “Sick 2 Def” and “I Don’t Hate You” evoke images of a young Drew perched on a single bed, gripping a battered old guitar. Early flirtations with grunge and punk manifest themselves in the DIY aggression of tracks like “No More Eatin”, while “No Good” reworks the hook of Kelly Charles’ 1987 house anthem, “You’re No Good For Me”. Hip-hop influences are also made clear by turntable scratching, drum sequences and references to classic tracks like Blak Twang’s 2002 single, “So Rotten”, which is sampled on the song “Missing Links”.

It goes without saying that Who Needs Actions… is a record littered with obscenities and gory detail. Discovering this album in early secondary school meant hunching over the shared family PC listening cautiously to “Kidz”, headphones pressed tightly to my ears. The album’s opening track sees Drew adopt the persona of a violent, obnoxious teenager bragging casually about the vicious acts he’s committed. While his textbook dark wit seeps through in lyrics like “Trust me, blud, you don’t wanna make this hard/Hand over your money, your phone and your Pokémon cards,” there remains a more serious undercurrent throughout the track, with references to the brutal killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000. By highlighting this horrendous crime, which permeated public consciousness in the early-00s, Plan B asserts his position as a bold social commentator. He occupies this role adeptly from here on in.

“Where Ya From?” is a powerful indictment of street-level violence and division. Against a harsh backdrop of stabbed piano sequences and sweeping string samples, Plan B criticises the toxicity of the environment that formed him (“I’m from a place where the streets are filled with snakes/That smile in your face as they plot to do you wrong”), and takes apart the futility of postcode wars and the hypocrisy embedded in conflicts he has witnessed ( “Give a guy props for licking shots from a gun/Like if they fired one at him the fucking prick wouldn’t run”). This insight into the social pressures that helped create this record is further developed in the album’s final offering, “Breakdown”. Simultaneously defiant and nonchalant, the track is a strident, self-effacing ‘Que Sera Sera’ for the 21st century, in which Drew spits: “Maybe I’ll blow/Maybe I won’t/Maybe I’ll just spend my life living on the dole.” His lyrics are undercut by humour and a knack for a sharp turn of phrase, encapsulated by the line, “When I set my targets, I don’t aim low/I aim so my fist connects straight with your face bro/Til it don’t look right, like white girls who wear their hair in canerows (sorry mum).”

“Charmaine” is the LP’s best-known track, and understandably so. Expertly crafted, Drew’s narrative paints a vivid picture of a relationship cut short by the bombshell news: “Blud! That girl’s fourteen.” Accompanied by delicate Spanish guitar licks and a smooth R&B beat, Plan B fluidly mixes romantic hyperbole with brazen teen lust in lines like: “Piercing green eyes that shine like emeralds/Once she gave me the wink, I could only think with my genitals.” His ability to complicate lighter tracks by adding troubling details like the revelation of Charmaine’s age drives home the fine line between comedy and tragedy in the world which generated Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. Drew’s debut is shaped by an understanding that sometimes you’ve got to laugh, otherwise you’ll cry. Whether it’s impersonating skinny stoners and condescending East End police officers on “Rakin’ The Dead” or mocking his “religious nut” of a father on “I Don’t Hate You”, Drew repeatedly extracts the comedy from what he coins “the darker side of life.”

While 2012’s Ill Manors project demonstrated the growth of Plan B’s unique storytelling ability, there remains a harshness and clarity to the narratives explored in his debut that could never be replicated. 15 years after its release, Plan B should be lauded for his commitment to boldly tackling social issues that many rappers were be fearful of addressing at the time. After all, it’s the rough edges, bitter voice and repeated threat of being “stabbed in the eye, yo, with a fucking biro” which make Who Needs Actions… so special.

Posted on July 07, 2021