James Blake is a singer/songwriter and producer from London. He found underground success with a series of EPs released in 2010 on R&S Records and turned the buzz into a silver certification for his debut, self-titled LP in 2011. He went on to drop Overgrown in 2013 and The Colour in Anything in 2016, both of which peaked in the 30’s on the US charts and topped the dance music charts. His biggest mainstream success came on a pair of features on the Black Panther soundtrack in 2017.
Despite the lack of a massive hit, Blake is a darling of the music critic world, and for good reason. He’s often hailed for his ability to blend a multitude of genres, which he does with ease and remarkable skill. His understanding of rap music is especially impressive as he seems to understand the genre better than many modern rappers, blending it perfectly with jazz, country, rock, and his folksy roots. Now four albums in, James Blake is crafting one of the most unique and intriguing catalogs in modern music, and that continues with Assume Form.
From the start, the album is very obviously headed in a unique, minimal direction. Tracks like the opener and title track or “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow,” utilize simplistic instrumentals, relying heavily on looping sound bites. They also play with timing and tempo in an interesting way that leaves a listener feeling a bit off balance. Luckily, though, our ears gravitate so quickly to Blake’s excellent vocals that he’s able to see us through some of the more experimental changes.
Aside from James’ talented performances, there’s also quite a features list here as well. Travis Scott sounds better than ever on “Mile High,” as does ROSALIA on “Barefoot in The Park.” In both instances, featuring artists get to take center stage for an extended period of time as apposed to a single, unrelated verse as is generally the case. The only feature with a criminally short grip on the spotlight gives perhaps the best performance of the list as Andre 3000 of Outkast drops a fantastically complex verse on “Where’s the Catch,” a track that actually feels a bit meandering aside from his appearance.
Additionally, producer Metro Boomin helps out on a couple tracks. The first of these is the aforementioned “Mile High,” which is relatively simple, but the second is “Tell Them,” which features one of the best beats I’ve heard in quite a while. From the excellent loop of Moses Sumney’s haunting voice to the soft, watery synths, the track is just beautifully crafted, and when the violins make an appearance in the final third, it serves as nothing more than a cherry on top.
The instrumental pallet is nothing to dismiss either, as tracks like “Into the Red,” and “Are You in Love,” use everything from violins to baroque pianos to woodwinds and synths that seem ripped directly from a 1980’s Nintendo game. Even more importantly, though, is the way these organic, folk-inspired instruments are given new life being weaved in and out of what is ostensibly trap production. The heavy bass and snapping hi-hats contrast perfectly against the physical instrumentation in an extremely rare way.
He also plays with a dreamier, more smooth style of production on tracks like “I’ll Come Too,” which seems built from the ground up on a very jazz-inspired foundation, and “Don’t Miss It,” which is driven by a fascinating speed effect on Blake’s lead vocal and decorated by an operatic backing voice that is simply chilling. While this isn’t a style he pursues all that often on the record, he never the less delivers quite impressively when it’s used.
All this is not to mention Blake’s impressive lyrical chops, his ability to write vocal melodies that are completely unpredictable, the fantastic pacing of the album, and the remarkably even balance he strikes between manic tempo and melodic changes and minimalistic grooves. However, there are a few blemishes.
Namely, near the end of the project, there are two weak entries. The first is “Power On,” which seemed packed full of interesting ideas, but instead meanders from section to section without bringing his ideas together cohesively. This is far superior, however, to the closer and worst track, “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” which just seems to lack completely in the creativity department, waisting somewhat interesting lyrics on a weak track that never quite finds it’s footing.
All told, Assume Form is fantastic! James Blake’s ability to meld genres, experiment with tempos and production, and break the mold of conventional song form all while remaining relatively accessible is simply astounding.
Assume Form is a fantastic addition to both James Blake’s ever improving catalog and the dialogue of modern music as a whole.