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Last summer, after unveiling I Don’t Miss it – a gut-spilling moment from his loved-up fourth album, Assume Form – James Blake made an exasperated plea on Twitter for us to stop calling him a “sad boy”. Invoking the current epidemic of male suicide, Blake argued that the term was a dangerous pejorative, an “unhealthy” way to describe men who are honest about their feelings. And after years of bottling things up, he wrote, he finally saw the strength in doing the opposite.
Blake might have felt particularly tetchy at that moment because anyone hoisting the sad boy flag had missed the point. Don’t Miss It is a veiled declaration of a happier, healthier man. He warns us to pay attention, because things do get better: “When the dull pain goes away, don’t miss it/ When you stop being a ghost in the shell and everybody keeps saying you look well, don’t miss it” But the sentiment is hard to grasp – the lyrics are tricky, and sung over some devastating piano balladry. This aesthetic tangle is the undoing of Assume Form, an album of gorgeous moments going nowhere in particular.
When Blake took off the post-dubstep mask to introduce himself as an avant-garde electronic soul singer, he made this unheard-of transition look easy. His production was daring yet tasteful, and his voice contained multitudes – cracked, mournful, somehow both gritty and ephemeral. He sounded sad. On his rap collaborations – RZA, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar – he traded this tragic aesthetic for more overtly masculine energy, sharing a strategy with Bon Iver, another former collaborator. By now, this mode of emotional vulnerability has in fact become the dominant mood of contemporary rap – from Future and 21 Savage through to Yung Lean and Post Malone.
On Assume Form, there’s a gap between what we hear and what he means. This time, Blake is a happy man. He’s very much in love with Jameela Jamil, the ever-present “she” in his lyrics, and their life in California has brought him a sense of security. On some tracks he allows himself to wallow in his happiness and test out what this would actually sound like, with mixed results. Can’t Believe the Way We Flow is shimmering, sampladelic pop, like the Avalanches at their most sunshine-bright and cloying. I’ll Come Too is a gesture of puppy love so cheesy it might make Donny Osmond blink: “Oh, you’re going to New York?/ I’m going there, why don’t I come with you/ Oh you’ve changed to LA?/ I’m going there, I could go there too”.
Perhaps aware that this smug lovebird deal could wear thin across a whole album, Blake also flicks through his stacked Rolodex to bring in some admittedly great guests. Mile High finds Travis Scott saying not a lot over a comfortably numb beat by Metro Boomin. In the headline slot is a pensive André 3000, questioning his inability to sit back and enjoy success on Where’s the Catch? Harking back to his chemistry with RZA on 2013’s Overgrown, Blake lays down a challenge with a cloudy, off-kilter arrangement, which André turns into an album highlight without breaking a sweat.
On a different note, Moses Sumney and Rosalía bring voices not so different to Blake’s – quivering, unstable, breathily romantic. Rosalía in particular is like a mirage, a shimmering temptation that reflects your yearning back at you. They wrap around each other on the bilingual serenade Barefoot In the Park joining up for a memorable but distinctly weird chorus: “Barefoot in the park/ You start rubbing off on me”. On the ecstatic Don’t Miss It, Blake’s digital quiver seems to borrow from the hyper-melismatic gospel singer serpentwithfeet. The vocals are the vanguard edge of the record, in many ways – a reflection of the two-way traffic between hip-hop’s Auto-Tuned blues and pop’s emotional overspill.
Blake has a propensity to blur the edges, leaving cadences unresolved and spaces unfilled. This has led him into dark and lonesome territory before, allowing his opaque lyrics to come off as emotionally complex when, maybe, they weren’t. On Assume Form, he’s tried to seal up the leaks and make everything solid, but he doesn’t have all the right pieces.