Some people get lots of invitations. James Blake gets the right ones.
He’s had a role on two of the greatest albums of the last decade – Beyonce’s delicious Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize winner Damn.
He worked on another impactful and culturally relevant album, Jay-Z’s 4:44; he’s part of Travis Scott’s pop star breakthrough Astroworld; and he was called on to contribute to the soundtrack to the uber-successful and powerful Black Panther,” earning him two Grammy nominations.
Those key projects helped Blake, a British singer-songwriter-producer with a distinct downbeat electronic sound, develop and expand as an artist – growth heard throughout his latest project, Assume Form.
“I have more people involved possibly in this process than before. …I had the help of some really inspiring people,” Blake said of his fourth album, out last Friday. “It feels like there’s a team rather than a solo effort.”
Blake produced, wrote and co-mixed the album, but helpers include co-producer Dominic Maker of the duo Mount Kimbie and Nathan Boddy, who co-mixed and mastered the album. Andre 3000, Metro Boomin and Scott also lend their vocals to songs.
The decision to invite others into his space was natural, Blake said.
“I think I was probably sick of being the mad scientist at home,” he said. “It’s so much more socially rewarding to be around other people. It creates a whole different universe in your mind.”
Blake, 30, isn’t popping up on every radio hit like Lil Wayne once did or how Quavo has assumed that role in the last two years, but the invites he’s gotten have been epic, and by music’s most elite.
The same year he released his self-titled debut, Beyonce listed The Wilhelm Scream from his album as one of her favourites of 2011. They later collaborated on her ground-breaking Lemonade album, released in 2016.
Blake then collaborated with Frank Ocean. Then Scott. Then Lamar. Then Jay-Z. And then Lamar again. And then Scott again.
“What I liked about what we did together was that they chose things that really felt like me. I felt that they were so sensitive to the contribution with the way they handled it and the way they incorporated it into their records,” he said. “It’s really nice to just be expected to come in and be myself. I think that was very sweet in all those cases. It wasn’t a case of crowbarring me into something. It was very tailored.”
From working with Beyonce, Blake said he learned not to limit his artistry.
“When I first worked with Beyonce, there was kind of a moment where my perspective changed a little bit on where I could be in music. I think I’ve always felt, or at least for a long time, that my position in music was to bubble under mainstream … (and) be kind of like a musician’s musician,” he said. “She really put me in a new context, and I think in that way she did me an absolutely massive favour.”
Listening to Assume Form proves Blake is more than a musician’s musician – and that he could be on his way to pop star status.
Underneath the heavy and jagged beats, there’s a sense of hopefulness and love in the honest and raw lyrics delivered by Blake. Can’t Believe The Way We Flow and Into The Red feel like love songs, but not typical ones. Barefoot In The Park, featuring Latin singer Rosalia, is a sensual number that is addictive; and Mile High, with Scott and Metro Boomin, could fit on multiple Spotify playlists.
“There are some moments of doubt on the record, but I would definitely say it’s a love-song album,” he said.
“Assume Form – it’s not a statement to say, ‘Here I am. I’m great now. I’ve made it’. It’s more to say, ‘I’m still in the process. It is a process,’” he said. “Rather it’s realising you’re wrong about things and swallowing your ego, or listening and opening up, trying to evolve that way, or trying to collaborate more. Getting out of some of the aspects of the skin that you’re in, that you are frustrated with. It is a process and it’s OK to still be assuming form. The song itself, Assume Form, really just says, ‘Here are my uncomfortable traits.’”
His past albums have some feeling he’s always down and out. But he said that’s not the case.
“If someone says that I make sad music, I don’t take it as an insult. I think there’s room for every emotion in music. I guess I write autobiographically and if I feel reflective at the time, then I’ll write something reflective. Also, music being an outlet means that you don’t always feel the way you felt when you’re writing all the time. If anything, writing is a creative outlet for emotion, or it is for me. So, in those moments maybe I felt that way, but it doesn’t mean that’s how I always feel.”
“If anything, my goal is to maybe more accurately portray a broader range of emotions in my music. I think partially this is what this album does,” he added. “I have had more of a range, from happiness to doubt to self-doubt to suspicion that the world might not be as good as it feels now, forever.”
He’ll be competing at the Grammys for best rap performance and best rap song with King’s Dead from the Black Panther soundtrack. Blake shares the nomination with Lamar, Jay Rock and Future.
“I’m honoured to be asked to work on that Black Panther soundtrack. I was aware of the gravity of what they were doing, and I think it was just really sweet to be asked,” said Blake, who also appears on Bloody Waters from the soundtrack.
“I didn’t take it lightly, especially to be working with Kendrick himself. I think that was great. I just wanted to approach it as well as I could, really.” – AP