When 27-year-old Ben Drew, a.k.a. Plan B, first caught the attention of the mainstream press with the release of his debut album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words in 2006, he was immediately deemed the U.K.’s answer to Eminem. The reasoning behind the comparisons were obvious: like Marshall Mathers, Drew grew up in a single-parent household in a gritty neighborhood—in Drew’s case, Forest Gate in East London—and spat out abrasive, tightly spun rhymes about drugs, violence, sex, and isolation. But also like Shady before him, Drew has proven that he’s nobody’s answer to anything. His sophomore record, The Defamation of Strickland Banks (Atlantic), which entered the U.K. chart at number one when it was released in Britain last year, is a brash, expansive musical departure, exploring the themes of love and betrayal through a smooth-talking, suit-wearing, soul ballad–singing alter-ego that Drew calls Strickland Banks, who falls for a nebulous siren only to be sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Drew, who also acts (he appeared in the 2009 Michael Caine film Harry Brown), recorded Defamation last year in tandem with another (and as-yet-unreleased) hip-hop record, The Ballad of Belmarsh, and the album has propelled him to new levels of commercial success (the tracks “She Said” and “Stay Too Long” both reached the top ten on the U.K. singles chart) and critical acclaim (Drew was named British Male Solo Artist this past February at the 2011 Brit Awards). But while Defamation is musically worlds away from Who Needs Actions, Drew insists that they’re both of a piece. “I’ve watched a friend die. I have friends who have been addicted to heroin. I needed to tell these stories [on Who Needs Actions],” says Drew. His first attempt at a soul song, “Love Goes Down,” inspired him to change course for Defamation. “I grew up listening to this pirate underground station called Kool FM and singing soul, but I had never experienced love before, so it didn’t feel true to me,” he says. “I felt like I had to create a new identity for people to accept it.” One failed relationship later, making a record like Defamation became a necessary move. “I define myself as a storyteller,” says Drew, who now lives in Hackney, a neighborhood near his childhood home (“A little closer to the center,” he says, “but still gritty, still hood”). “I’ve done hip-hop. I’ve done soul. Next, I’m going to do a drum-and-bass-influenced punk album with a group,” he adds. “People are either going to hate it or be very surprised.”