How long has Plan B been away? Five years? It seems even longer. When the 33-year-old musician also known as Ben Drew arrives to meet me, his slicked back hair, whether dyed or not, is startlingly grey.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a ghost,” he says, as he clocks my eyes registering the top of his head with surprise. Perhaps it was Banquo, or Hamlet’s dad. We’re at Shakespeare’s Globe, the surprising choice of venue for Drew to make his live comeback next week.
The last time he was in the public eye, in 2012, he’d made a rap album – the Mercury-nominated, gold-selling Ill Manors – and also written and directed a film of the same name. Both were relentlessly grim depictions of London council estate life, one the soundtrack to the other. We met around then too and he seemed exhausted from all the work, as well as from insisting that, not long after the riots of 2011, things really were as bad as he portrayed them in song and in the cinema.
“The album was a success, but the film was a commercial failure,” he says now. “All the people on the street who saw it completely endorsed it and said, ‘This is what it’s like.’ Everybody else said it was unrealistic.” Characters included a fascist child abuser, a 13-year-old forced to commit a gun murder, and a prostitute made to have sex with the staff of a fast food shop to repay a drug dealer for a lost mobile phone. “I took all of the things I knew had happened during my teenage years and made them all happen over the course of one week. So there was some artistic liberty, yes.”
Drew grew up with his single mother near, but not on, a council estate in Forest Gate. I tell him that his horrifying film has certainly stayed with me, but I’m in no hurry to watch it again. “Same here, trust me!” he says.
“You know I was sleeping in the film company’s offices, trying to finish it?” he reflects, recalling our somewhat stressed earlier meeting. Today he couldn’t be more different. He’s got three glasses of rose and all the time in the world. What’s changed? That’s what he wants to tell us with his next album, his fourth, which may or may not be released later this year.
“I’ve got a new song called Grateful that explains where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. It’s about my child,” he explains. “It’s me understanding for the first time in my life what gratitude is. She’s coming up for four years old. I’m loving it, it’s the best thing in the world.”
His girlfriend’s pregnancy wasn’t planned, but they embraced the opportunity to settle down. “I bought a house and did the house up. That was me being creative,” he says of his time away from music. It was a necessary absence. “I hadn’t been experiencing real life. I’d been working and being a celebrity. If I’d made another album straight away, it could only have been about making an album and writing a film because that’s all I’d been doing. I needed to get some life experience under my belt, and just as I was ready to do that, my girlfriend fell pregnant. Before too long, I understood that the focus I’d asked the universe to give me, it had given me. I wasn’t happy – okay, I had money, I was going to parties, but I was quite empty inside. I was saying, ‘I need to reconnect with my spirituality, I need to get some life experience, help me God.’ Okay, bang! My daughter was born.”
The new, contented Plan B has had to put rapping to one side, just as he did on his 2010 album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks. That was his biggest seller by far, a four-times platinum number one that spent almost a year and a half in the UK top 40. It revealed him to be a sweet-voiced singer treading on Amy Winehouse’s retro soul patch, and won him the British Male Solo Artist trophy at the 2011 Brit Awards plus three Ivor Novellos. Now he’s heading that way again.
“The people who came late to the party, the Radio 2 listeners, it’s gonna be music to their ears,” he jokes. After his last album alienated millions with grim hip hop songs including Drug Dealer and Great Day for a Murder – murky companion pieces to his very early rap songs such as Mama (Loves a Crackhead) – now he’s ready to show a softer side again. “With the rapping, it was very much a product of my environment. Now my environment has been this heavenly bubble of watching my kid grow up. Do I rap about that? What’s that gonna sound like? It never felt appropriate to rap but it definitely felt appropriate to sing,” he says.
He’s keen to stress that this isn’t only an album about nappies, however. “For the people that enjoy my rapping, the lyrics are still there, the content is still there, the way I say things and how I say it – that’s all there. The new thing is, my voice has matured. It’s come on in leaps and bounds. You’re gonna be saying: ‘Is that Plan B?’”
The comeback single is no buggy push in a sunny park, either. It’s called In the Name of Man and he wrote it years ago, inspired by watching the war in Iraq on the news. “You keep on killing in God’s name/Hey man, you’re the only one to blame/There’s blood on your hands, something’s wrong,” he sings in anguished tones. The song tackles the use of religion to justify murder in a way that would be relevant no matter when it appeared. “I’m talking about both sides. Everything these guys do is in the name of religion, whether it’s Islamic fundamentalism or ‘God bless America’,” he says. “I’m not an atheist. I believe in God. I’m just not sure how helpful religion is any more. It’s great for people who go off the rails and need structure in their life. It’s a positive thing that definitely works for some people, but when it’s used as a way of creating war and division – them versus us – then no.”
The song’s video is extraordinary. It’s six minutes long, so of course not as ambitious as his feature film, but still a deeply moving piece of filmmaking. A collaboration with small north London theatre company Flabbergast, it depicts everything from the World Trade Centre attacks, to the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, using brown leather puppets.
It’s a clear sign that newfound domesticity isn’t going to temper Drew’s creative ambitions. Equally, it’s a bold statement for this musician from underprivileged beginnings, excluded from school as a teenager, to take over the home of Shakespeare for a night.
“It’s not about making money. It’s about putting on a spectacle, doing something that is not the norm. We’re gonna try and push it as much as we can,” he says. “My whole life has been a struggle. They said, ‘People like you are not gonna make anything of yourself and sign a record deal.’ They said, ‘People like you won’t be able to hold on to a record deal. You won’t be able to sell that many records.’ They said, ‘People like you won’t be able to make a film – not just because of where you’re from, but because you’re a pop star, and pop stars can’t make films.’ I proved them wrong.”
Over a decade into his career, he’s still full of surprises. Think you know Plan B? Wrong again.
In the Name of Man is out now on 679. July 24, Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1 (020 20 7401 9919, shakespearesglobe.com)