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Remember post-dubstep? That was the tag on James Blake when he emerged in the early part of this decade, combining plaintive piano ballads with oppressive bass, resulting in a sound that was instantly his own. At the time, Blake thought of himself as part of the electronic scene, and found naysayers galore, most memorably Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who infamously tweeted, “Will this decade be remembered as the dubstep meets pub singer years?” Spoiler alert: This decade will not be remembered that way, and even just eight years after these comments, the whole idea of James Blake’s emergence ruffling feathers feels like a time capsule dug up to reveal tattered baseball cards and old love letters. It’s not who we were, and it’s certainly not who we are.
No, James Blake has evolved past that easy distinction. In fact, he has evolved past all easy distinctions. Even last year, when Pitchfork wrote about Blake’s “sad boy” brand upon the release of “Don’t Miss It,” Blake took to social media to clap back, confronting the criticism of “sad boy” as “problematic and unhealthy,” while questioning the double standards that men are held to with regards to expressing their emotions. “Please don’t allow people who fear their own feelings to ever subliminally shame you out of getting anything off your chest, or identifying with music that helps you,” he wrote. “There is no great victory in machismo and bravado in the end. The road to mental health and happiness, which I feel so passionately about, is paved with honesty.”
Less than a year later, even razor ads are supporting Blake’s stance. But interestingly, Blake’s fourth career album turns firmly away from the idea of sadness, without majorly altering the aesthetic that fans have come to expect. Blake’s Assume Form is still emotionally forthcoming, but those emotions are full of love and hope, thanks to his current romance with The Good Place‘s Jameela Jamil. And this isn’t just some super-couple gossip. Blake literally took to Twitter to say “you are the reason this album exists” to her, and she responded with a virtual bow. Anyone that follows Jamil on social media knows that the British actress is outspoken about body shaming and the media’s portrayal of women, to which Blake’s comments about mental health seem to find unity within progressive couple goals.
It’s fitting then that the first words on the album are “now I’m confiding,” with Blake quickly explaining that the album represents a change for him on the title track. “Gone through the motions my whole life / I hope this is the first day / That I connect motion to feeling” he continues on the song that is very much about the therapeutic value of being comfortable in your own skin and open about your innermost thoughts. And throughout it all, the “her” is there for support and inspiration, as essential as the air that is breathed or the water that is drunk. For Blake, love is another element that gives him life, and that allows him to fulfill his own potential.
To say that the same idea comes across musically would be misleading. Blake doesn’t have a dud in his catalog and has been consistently been great, so it’s not like a new way of looking at the world would suddenly shift him into a new realm of greatness. But where Blake is taking off is in his role as a collaborator. It’s been a new realm for Blake to really focus since his last effort, 2016’s The Color In Anything, and since around that time, has seen him with production, vocal, and/or songwriting credits on Beyonce’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn., Jay-Z’s 4:44, and Travis Scott’s Astroworld, just to name a few. And Assume Form takes the idea of Blake working with others to inspired new places, using his vision as a jumping off point for his contemporaries to help him shine.
Though only two rappers appear on the album, Scott and Outkast legend Andre 3000, they illuminate how Blake’s influence has shifted from the dance world to hip-hop. That largely mirrors a cultural shift that’s occurred during his career, too, and sees Blake again comfortable in where he is musically, offering up standout moments from two hip-hop stars that hardly need the shine. Scott is weeks away from appearing at the Super Bowl halftime show, but “Mile High,” which also features producer Metro Boomin, finds his laid-back trap flow and ear for a vocal hook put to good use despite a recasting, with Scott surprisingly malleable in his harmonizing with Blake. For Andre 3000’s part, it feels a little less collaborative and more like a spare verse dropped into the middle of the song, but that doesn’t really matter since Andre spits fire for his section of “Where’s The Catch?” It’s a drastic shakeup when it occurs on the album, but Blake’s last several years have prepared everyone for just this kind of moment, where his songs are just a guest verse away from completely changing their complexion. He’s never overshadowed by this. He’s taken the time to prove himself worthy of occupying the same orbit.
Moses Sumney and Rosalia also show up for excellent features, able to find more traditional harmony with Blake’s precise compositions. But the best moments on the album come right in the middle of the album, two tracks called “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” and “Are You In Love?” The former is bright and sunny in a way that Blake has never been, using vocal harmonies as backing in a way that evokes Kanye at his best, sounding like a throwback to Motown while at the same time as blasting off into the future. (Blake’s use of layered harmonies throughout the album is remarkable, seen later on the swelling conclusion of “Power On and the ghostly finish of “Don’t Miss It.”) And on “Are You In Love?,” Blake gives a playful, metallic keyboard tone a starring role on a tune that embraces the state of insecurity, when your own feelings are firmly in place, but you still wonder if they are reciprocated. Even on an album so unflinchingly honest about being in a state of bliss, he’s aware that this kind of openness is a two-sided coin, and Blake is sure to give it a warts-and-all treatment. It results in what is at once a brave album and one whose every decision feels carefully considered, where every love song is delivered with the knowledge that nothing, and no one, is perfect. And however revolutionary Blake’s current state of being might sound, it’s only a stopping point before life and music will change once again.
James Blake’s Assume Form is out now on Polydor Records. Get it here.