Last week, Kelefa Sanneh wrote an article building on Frank Kogan’s idea of DMX as self-destructive rock star, the guy who bought white rock’s fetishization of out-of-control fuckups to rap. The idea is that rap usually glorifies guys who completely control their surroundings, who are cool and calm enough that nothing that happens around them perturbs them; Jay-Z is the prime example here, the guy so unflappable that he doesn’t even need to sound fierce when he’s threatening you. But DMX is all snarl and scream, and his rage is turned inward as often as not. His arrest record and his personal issues have become completely inextricable from his public persona to the point where he’s actually seeking to capitalize off them with his new reality show. It’s a fascinating idea, but there’s another rapper working the rockstar self-hatred angle in even more interesting ways.
I don’t know too much about the 22-year-old white British rapper Plan B, whose new album, Who Needs Action When You Got Words, is maybe my favorite debut of the year, at least until Food & Liquor finally comes out. I thought “Cap Back,” a song he did with Wonder, was one of the more impressive tracks from the Run the Road compilation, but it didn’t really establish Plan B as a personality; it was just boilerplate grime done well. But Who Needs Action isn’t really a grime album at all; it’s tempting to say that it’s not even a rap album. It’s steeped in rock signifiers: acoustic guitars, queasy strings, live drums. The title comes from the Meat Puppet’s “Plateau” by way of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. Plan B loves getting his picture taken with a guitar like he was Wyclef or something, but it’s not an empty prop, and the strummy clumsiness of the tracks is the main thing that keeps Who Needs Action from being a great album. Whoever he has singing the hooks here sounds just like the guy who sings the hooks on Streets tracks, which just makes the comparison all too easy. Still, two songs jump out immediately. “Sick 2 Def” has no instrumentation beyond that acoustic guitar, a spare and rhythmic backdrop to a rap that steal’s Nas’s tired story-in-reverse gimmick and actually makes it work. And “Everyday” sounds like Espers, evil guitars intertwining with pianos and strings, no drums anywhere, Plan B rapping vaguely about depression and doubt and paranoia.
But the album’s instrumentation is probably the least interesting thing about it. The most interesting thing is Plan B himself, who comes off as a bloodthirsty ICP shock-rap type at first and then actually manages to develop that persona into something dense and intricate and moving. His first single, “Kidz,” registers as halfassed grime, the lyrics all snarly nonsense about “I break a bottle over some boy’s head / Stab a broken piece into the poor cunt’s neck.” The bloodlust doesn’t seem particularly subversive; it just seems overdone. Plan B has a thick cockney burr, and he doesn’t take pleasure in his cusswords the same way obvious touchstone Eminem does (his delivery is stuck on scowl). There’s an easy out on the chorus, which tries to reposition the song as social commentary rather than personal catharsis-fantasy: “Pick up an AK and spray / That’s the mentality of kids today.” See, he’s not talking about himself; he’s just talking about kids today. I didn’t buy it the first time I heard the song, but the album makes a convincing case. “Sick 2 Def”‘s backwards storyline serves as an excuse to spleen-vent on the parents that he thinks are trying to ban his stuff, sort of like how Eminem lashed out furiously at PMRC types on The Marshall Mathers LP before most of them had even figured out that he existed. And he’s already got his red-herring excuses up: “You best ban TV if you want me to stop because I’m so heavily influenced by the things that I watch / It ain’t just Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs / It’s Irreversible, Baise-Moi, City of God.” So Plan B is the first rapper to brag about being influenced by gory French art-porn. That’s something, I guess.
But as the album progresses, a picture of an enraged moralist emerges, someone deeply suspicious of parents and religion and authority in general, someone who raps about violence with revulsion rather than delight. The first inkling comes on “Dead and Buried,” where each of the verses is told from the perspective of someone whose life is already over: an AIDS patient, a dope fiend, and a guy going to prison for kneecapping the boyfriend who beat up and raped his sister. That last verse is the first one with a real emotional punch, especially when the predictable twist comes along: “Only to find out it was all in vain / Cuz your dumb bitch of a sister’s back with him again.” The plot thickens; three separate tracks are about evil or misguided parents. “Mama” tells his mother to dump her junkie boyfriend, and “Tough Love” tells the purportedly true story of a Muslim girl whose immigrant parents beat her to death when the decide she’s possessed by Satan. But the fire comes through strongest on “I Don’t Hate You,” Plan B’s blast of bile at his father, an absentee “religious nut.” It’s absolutely self-righteous and incensed, a total therapeutic vent, as eloquent as it is fierce: “You can’t run away from your past because your past is hereditary / The blood that courses through my veins is your legacy / Will probably be the only thing left of me from you.” It’s hard and angry, but it’s also totally vulnerable and emo, the sort of self-disclosure that American rappers only try when they’re far enough past their anger to be sanguine (T.I.’s “I Still Luv You”). “Where You From” puts a twist on the standard ghetto-upbringing tale. Most rappers depict their neighborhoods as dangerous snakepits that they still love and rep. Plan B is disgusted with his neighborhood, a place where people don’t value life: “Give a guy props for licking shots from a gun / Like if they fired at him the fucking prick wouldn’t run / It’s like they praising these youths for acting so dumb.” He finds things to hate everywhere, and he’s drawn to violence, but he’s not consumed by it. “Charmaine” tells the story of a kid falling for a girl, and you just know there’s a twist coming at the end. But instead of making her a serial-killer transsexual, Plan B just makes her too young, fourteen to the narrator’s nineteen. And that’s what’s ultimately so compelling about Who Needs Action. Plan B pictures himself as a man trying to be good despite the vile corrupting things around him, the pressures to be hard and violent. Plan B isn’t the best rapper alive, but he’s not afraid to get really tangled and complicated, and that’s what’s going to keep me coming back.