“The plan is to become reachable, to assume material form,” James Blakesaid in an interview with iTunes regarding the genesis of his fourth album’s title track, “to leave my head and join the world.” It is a sentiment made plain for all to see right there on the album cover – the most visible image of his visage he has yet provided on one of his solo releases.
From the startlingly forthright nature of Assume Form‘s lyrical content down to the newfound clarity with which he has mixed his vocals to opening himself up in a big way to the collaboration of other producers, Blake has – true to his word – never allowed himself to feel as present as he does here. But further listening of the record points to the fact that he has clearly lost something along the way on this journey to join the world.
Blake is objectively among the most influential artists of the past decade, blending and contorting hip-hop beats, R&B crooning, and classical instrumentation into pop song structures well before it became the industry standard for artists of each respective genre to do so. His relationship with the world of hip-hop in particular seemed destined for further greatness. Initial collaborations with RZA and Chance the Rapper gave way to full-on production for the likes of Vince Staples and Beyoncé and features on Kendrick Lamar tracks in the span of a few years.
In this respect, Assume Form is the apex of a career-long trajectory, a culmination of what Blake has been crafting in both his own work and the work of others since the beginning. The very best moments of his new album are reflections of this narrative. The one-two punch of the tracks helmed by Metro Boomin are the record’s twin highlights. “Mile High” finds Blake reuniting with Travis Scott, fresh from their work together on Scott’s masterful 2018 LP Astroworld, for a woozy, horny ballad about getting laid on an airplane. It’s far more subdued than anything found in Scott’s back catalog, but it’s an exceptionally jaunty romp for a Blake record (certainly the only time on one of his albums you’ll hear a phrase like “ass fatter than a peach”).
Its successor, “Tell Them,” is an utter masterstroke. The synth line is classic Blake, recalling the meandering longing of cuts like 2013’s “Life Round Here,” but here it is submerged beneath a colossal trap beat courtesy of Boomin. Blake upholds the track with the lower register of his voice, allowing his normally swoon-worthy falsetto to be carried by guest vocalist Moses Sumney, whose rasp turns in an equally swoon-worthy performance. It is one of the sole points on the album where everything manages to gel instead of congeal, and rivaled only by the show-stopping appearance of André 3000 on “Where’s the Catch?” for the MVP spot of guest features.
Because, despite the best of intentions, the majority of Assume Form does indeed congeal, becoming a half-cooked, overwrought mess when it has seemingly everything going for it. That the record’s brightest moments occur when Blake is joined by other artists is telling; they manage to – per Blake’s intention – expand his ideas and the actual songcraft, providing for a much more engaging listen. On the remainder of the tracks, one can almost feel the burden of Blake obsessively poring over them, creating a laborious density to what should, by any other means, be a well-honed pop record.
There are several songs in the album’s final section (a patience-trying slog of a listen), that fail to justify their existence entirely. “I’ll Come Too” contains the sketches of a better James Blake song, but the final product is a series of repetitive yelps backed by cinematic strings which feel wildly out of place, as if we’re bearing witness to the final, climactic swell of a rom-com taking place in Blake’s mind that we (perhaps fortunately) cannot see. The less said about its blasé lyrics the better.
While it is of course reductive and problematic to say suffering is required to make great art, Blake’s conscious move away from the melancholic tendencies that came to define his work and move towards a more openly romantic viewpoint on this record is not doing him any favors. This is not to say one definitively informs the other, but the distinction is, nevertheless, very apparent. Coupled with bringing his vocals more to the fore of the mix than ever before, we are privy to a variety of prosaic attempts at dissecting his relationships that, for the most part, fall flat. “Into the Red” is set up on the premise of analogizing a flagging relationship with going into debt, a mildly interesting concept that loses its appeal less than a verse into the song. Similarly, “Don’t Miss It” has the conceit of a good idea of poetry-like repetition, but lacks all the execution of a good idea.
Assume Form is not so much bad as it is disappointing; it’s fine that James Blake did not reinvent the wheel, but it’s less fine that his wheels are spinning. Both his songwriting and production chops have pronouncedly faltered. One hopes that it was but a temporary misstep and not a more permanent downslide.