James Blake is a name you may or may not be familiar with. His voice, however, is one you’ve most definitely heard. Blake has occupied the speakers in your car, the playlists at fraternity parties you “ironically” attend and the Instagram Stories your friends post. He is one of the most prolific guest vocalists in modern hip-hop, lending his chilly emotion to the projects of musical juggernauts such as Kanye West, Travis Scott and Beyoncé, among many others.
Blake’s solo projects, while not distant departures from his guest work, have always been more experimental in nature. One of the singer’s most profound moments is the cut “The Wilhelm Scream” from his self-titled project in 2011. The song, a cover of Blake’s own father’s “Where to Turn,” is introspective electronica at its finest, juxtaposing raw emotion with a manufactured universe. The track epitomizes the brooding world of synthesized anguish which Blake has successfully inhabited throughout his career.
Enter the Jan. 18 release “Assume Form,” Blake’s latest full-length project.
The project is largely a departure from his previous work. Separate from content, it displays a similarly structured focus to that of the singer-songwriter’s previous works. The main difference at play on the record is a newfound, love-induced happiness and zest for life not featured on many of Blake’s past efforts. What results is a massively ambitious yet softly executed collection of songs about love, self-analysis and growth.
The title track and album opener sets the mood of the project well. It shows Blake attempting to leave the confining space of self-conscious thought and join the external environment around him.
“I will assume form,” he sings. “I’ll be out of my head this time.”
The sentiment is a perfect way to welcome listeners into the world of the record. No longer a passerby, Blake will inject himself into the world around him.
He does this incredibly well, as exhibited by the several collaborations on the album. The first track naturally segues into the Metro Boomin-produced “Mile High.” The track, a playful nod to the ‘mile high club,’ features current hip-hop king Travis Scott on a relaxed yet focused verse. Blake matches Scott’s style here but maintains his individuality. Similar are the standouts “Barefoot In The Park” and “Where’s the Catch,” bolstered by immaculate assists from Rosalía and André 3000, respectively. The songs deal with two opposing topics: The time in a relationship where it starts to become significant and the moment you think it’s too good to be true.
Separate from the collaborative spirit of “Assume Form” is the central love story. The bulk of the tracklist deals with a relationship that has lifted Blake to heights before unknown. While not every track is a standout, each offers unique insight into the multifaceted nature of a growing romance. “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” somewhat provides the feel of a Kanye West B-side yet is joyful in its sentiment, as is “Are You In Love?”, a second guess at the reality of a substantial relationship. “Power On” is perhaps the most significant of these love-soaked tracks, highlighting a complete shift in Blake’s attitude at the blossoming of his love affair.
The album closes softly with “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” providing a perfect bookend to a concise yet expansive album. Here, Blake assumes the form he promised at the start, cooing his love to sleep and providing support should she lay awake with insomnia.
As a whole, the album is a laser focused collection of the most accessible works of Blake’s career. The British singer was able to use the trap influence of modern music without falling into its, well, traps. Rather, Blake amalgamates his signature experimental style with popular contemporary sounds and styles. He finds balance in emotional indulgence and upbeat world-building.