James Blake - 'Assume Form' Album Review
James Blake has had one of the strangest career trajectories of the last decade and I find it hard to figure out where I stand on him. Starting out in experimental electronica, James Blake’s self-titled debut is a landmark in experimental pop and put him on the map as one of Britain’s most intriguing artists. After this he took this pop direction more seriously, with his next 2 albums catering to a more commercial audience with a slew of slow ballads. While there wasn’t anything explicitly wrong with Blake’s music at the time, I couldn’t help but find it somewhat sluggish and samey, but seemingly out of nowhere my interest in him was reignited by his involvement in the hip-hop scene. Collaborations with Jay Rock, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and even supporting Kendrick Lamar on his tour, put James Blake back on my radar, as he had production credits in some of my favourite hip-hop tracks of the last few years as well as a few fantastic singles in 2018. After what feels like an age with one of the first releases of 2019, we have his new album Assume Form, a project that is beautiful, eerie and ultimately a step in the right direction for the British singer-songwriter.
Let’s just get this out of the way, James Blake’s voice is heavenly and is a big reason for his success within British music. But the thing that always grasped me with his sound was in his glitchy and creepy production that accompanied it, meeting somewhere in between trip-hop and dance, something that I felt was lacking on his last album The Colour In Anything. Luckily, from the very first track, it’s obvious that Blake is going back to this sound as the opener ‘Assume Form’ leads with a chopped up piano alongside a skewed sample that toes the line between beautiful and sinister. This is a trend that is kept up throughout the album with the incredible ‘Barefoot In The Park’, a pop blend between some Björk-esque production and ROSALÍA’s heavenly voice makes for a fantastic and ominous pop-banger that incorporates some of James Blake’s classic imagery.
One of the highlights of Assume Form is the way Blake incorporates features, and as is expected from his recent endeavours, a large portion of this comes from the hip-hop community. A James Blake, Travis Scott and Metro Boomin track would’ve been unheard of in 2015 and yet here we are, with ‘Mile High’, an intoxicating, other-worldly track that uses auto-tune to create a lazy and atmospheric vibe that Travis and Blake carry perfectly. Another standout feature comes from the legendary André 3000 of OutKast fame, a man who is easily one of the greatest rappers of all time so it’s no surprise that his track ‘Where Is The Catch’ is a standout. Featuring a plodding and slow piano beat, André’s verse features fantastic word-play and flow, almost overshadowing Blake’s jarring vocal performance on the chorus.
It’s fair to say that I am in love with the sound of this album but something that I haven’t touched on yet is the lyrical content, which focuses almost entirely on his relationship with partner Jameela Jamil. Now the topic of love is not new to James Blake and to be honest is not new to music as whole and as a result the concept of Assume Form doesn’t seem very strong on paper. But something about the personal nature of his lyrics on tracks like ‘Power On’ and ‘Into The Red’ is just too cute not to enjoy, even if sometimes it feels a little tedious, considering almost every track on here is about their relationship. When Blake does delve into other areas he does it equally emotionally, like on the pessimistic and tragic ‘Don’t Miss It’, the first single to Assume Form that prompted a brilliant response from Blake asking writers to stop using the term ‘Sad boy’ music when describing it.
Assume Form combines influences of hip-hop, R&B and Pop to create a beautiful portrait of a relationship from a male perspective, presenting a loving, loyal couple, rather than the common ‘stud’ image perpetuated by modern music. Regardless of your opinion of the album’s subject matter, it’s hard to say that the production on this album isn’t something special as Blake flexes his creative muscles, moving from trap to R&B to trip-hop along it’s short but sweet track-list. There’s no doubt that tracks like ‘Mile High’ and ‘I Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’ may alienate some fans of Blake’s more ballad-y tracks, but as far as I’m concerned, Assume Form is a triumph in alternative R&B.
Listen to the album below: