There are few artists in the entirety of music who have the level of impact on my emotional state that James Blake does. His debut, self-titled record was on constant repeat during my college years, and each subsequent EP, single, and record only made me fall more deeply in love with the spacious, dubstep-infused minimalism of Blake’s compositions. So when I heard that Blake’s fourth full-length record, Assume Form, would feature Metro Boomin, Travis Scott, and André 3000, I was more than a little trepidatious. Blake has always thrived as an über-moody solo sadboi, so how would these additional collaborators impact his music? The answer is… a whole lot in some cases and not at all in others. The most expansive and ambitious of Blake’s projects, Assume Form is a truly mesmerizing piece of work that will infuriate some and entrance others. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s a vital pop record worthy of your time and attention.
Blake hits you with his new emphasis on collaboration early with “Mile High” and “Tell Them”, which feature the aforementioned Boomin and Scott, as well as the immensely talented Moses Sumney. These two tracks provide an immediate introduction to Blake’s latest artistic iteration, bringing in some of the biggest names in hip-hop to help him tell his stories. Which, given Blake’s newfound joy in life, is incredibly appropriate. These are songs about love written by a man love-stricken, which is not a phase of life we are accustomed to Blake residing in. His duet with ROSALÍA on “Barefoot in the Park” is one of the most stark examples of this change of mood, as Blake pontificates in his own, quiet way about the influence of loved ones. It’s a new, much less brooding and sullen approach to songwriting that is equal parts jarring and inviting.
However, as always, Blake shines brightest in his solo work. Even if you dislike his collaborative tracks, there’s a significant chunk of music on Assume Form that displays Blake’s growth as a producer and songwriter. “Into the Red” is a twisting, darkly melodic track that will remind those who’ve followed his music up to this point of the absolutely stunning highs he is capable of. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”, “I’ll Come Too”, and “Don’t Miss It” are album highlights that shine a bright light on the potential future directions that Blake’s music could go in if he stays so happily contemplative. Given that they feature some of his best production to date, I’d say that’s nowhere close to a bad thing.
Assume Form is Blake’s most divisive and bold album yet. Where his debut entered the music world’s conscious like a quiet hammer blow, this record is an equally potent and controversial watershed moment for the artist and, given his widespread influence, the pop music world at large. If you appreciate Blake’s music or pop music at large, I strongly urge you to give this record a listen. You may hate it, you may love it, but either way you can say you bore witness to a significant moment in the development of an artist and the music he has so significantly impacted.