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James Blake commits to hip-hop—finally

James Blake? Yes, this is James Blake.

James Blake? Yes, this is James Blake. Photo courtesy of Chuffmedia

James Blake has been toying with hip-hop for years, indulging in one-off flirtations with the likes of Vince Staples, Jay-Z, and RZA. On Assume Form, he commits.

Hip-hop tracks come from many sources. There are strictly hip-hop producers, though plenty of these moodily genre bend with the best of them. There are also producers from outside the genre who dip a toe in, inviting a rapper to spit over a standard pop, EDM, or even country song.

Then there are the true independents—they consistently hold the attention of executive level rappers with productions that aren’t straight up rap beats or ambivalent electronica fare but simply generate vibes and moods with plenty of space for expressive groaning or classic rapping. This is the crew to which Blake now belongs.

Blake’s fourth studio album centers around appearances from Andre 3000, Metro Boomin, and, significantly, Travis Scott, with whom he clearly shares a composer’s kinship. Both constantly switch things up, bringing in talented ringers to deliver esoteric performances at the precise right time—the moment when the auteurist chaos focuses into a bracing melodic logic.

Edgy rap often reconfigures incongruent, atonal, or outright nasty sounds by capturing them within the gravitational pull a haunting, beautiful core. Blake manipulates this mutability expertly, and his unique, shifting delivery, often electronically manipulated, grants him access to hidden alcoves of sound where few can venture.

For instance, Blake dashes into the opening of “Into the Red” like a gymnast beginning a routine, then contorts his voice into a spate of flexible styles, catapulting into and precisely landing each. It’s a very rap-minded delivery, boasting a rhythmic versatility most singers don’t break out. And he also can’t help but show off his rap production prowess with little ditty breaks that roll your hips while juicing cerebral invigoration.

Blake’s spacious electronic settings are ideal for the choppiest spitting, as world-class hired gun Andre 3000 proves on “Where’s the Catch?” Of course if Blake tried to bust bars, it’d sound terrible, yeah, but you could say the same of Scott, Drake, or Kid Cudi. Like all these guys, Blake insinuates. That allows him to share the mic with Scott on the straightforward trip-trap “Mile High”—both communicate in the same humming sing song.

Yet Blake elongated, fluttering vibrato on classic singer-songwriter tracks “Barefoot in the Park” and “Don’t Miss It,” is the kind of thing Scott wouldn’t even try in the shower. (Though Cudi might). “I’ll Come Too,” which includes with a choice, waltzy ballroom break, Blake shows us what a rhythm singer with rap leanings doing Buble doing Sinatra sounds like—that’s right, Jidenna. (The two should really link up.)

Blending is so goddamn in right now—genre-, gender-, live band and electronic production, blond tips. Blake pairing ear for intertwining genre is impeccable, swirling his songs together to present himself as a single organism with distinct highs and lows—a.k.a. a person.

There’s been a lot of talk about Blake’s brighter side shining through on Assume Form, but really he just complements his lows with other emotions to present a fuller picture. Relative to the rest of his oeuvre, sure, it’s a jaunty skip. And with rap in an extended sulk, the slightest nod toward emotional balance feels like the sun breaking through the clouds. When Future displayed a little vulnerability, like five years ago, it was like he’d invented feelings; now we have a wall of wailing rappers like Juice Wrld and Trippie Redd, and we’ve gone too far the other way. Blake fit in nicely there for a while, but his new stuff attempts to move beyond his ever-present sadness and skepticism without denying it.

That's what the first song, the title track, is about: taking on a disposition of hope. “Appearances mean nothing,” Blake recites, not a mantra that rejects the act of faking happiness to make yourself happy, but as a reminder that progressing toward happiness is an incremental process. Hopefully, it works for him. And Blake comes by his emotional uplift in a fully black-ass way: gospel, which he wonderfully pulls off. Kanye couldn’t have been more proud.

Most important, however, is the gift Blake shares with all electronic producers: the ability to make a computer seem as mysterious and pure a source of music as a guitar. Take the low keyboard grumble on “Power On.” It’s the platonic idea of a synth sound—precise and melodic, but also just fuzzy and guttural enough, like how a Gillespie horn blast had the right texture. It’s as simple and effective as Ye’s synth on “I Love It.”

Blake has joined the limited ranks of producers can hold down entire songs, and create entire narrative worlds, with a single synth texture. And he did so by Blake commits to rap-synth mood juicing: He put a ring on it, and it's till death do ‘em part.