Back when James Blake used to record post-dubstep tracks alone in his bedroom, few could have predicted that he’d go on to collaborate with rap heavyweights like Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar... unless of course, you were actually paying attention. Critics have been quick to express their surprise at Blake’s evolving links with hip-hop, but you only need to give early EP’s like CMYK a spin to clearly hear those influences from the outset of his career.
Fast forward a decade and Blake has returned with perhaps his most rap-oriented record yet. No longer content with simply sampling the vocals of R&B starlets like Kelis and Aaliyah, Assume Form features collaborations with some of hip-hop’s brightest stars, including Metro Boomin, Travis Scott and that very rarest of things; a guest verse from André 3000.
Once upon a time, it might have seemed peculiar for the likes of Three Stacks to collaborate regularly with a squeaky clean English musician from London, but André is just one of many hip-hop artists who have worked alongside Blake to push back against the boundaries of genre. In doing so, the British songwriter’s influence has even begun to impact rappers who have never directly collaborated with him, and this symbiotic relationship has in turn informed his own style too, looping back and forth between both parties like one of his signature beats.
Long before Blake enjoyed impromptu sing alongs with Blue Ivy or found himself inexcusably late for a meeting with Kanye West, rap has always played a major role in his life. During an interview with The Denver Post, Blake claimed that his music is produced in “hip-hop song form,” but then went on to joke that he hasn’t played a major role in hip-hop “because of where I was born.” Although this exchange took place in 2013, years before his subsequent collaborations with the likes of Beyoncé and Anderson .Paak, by then, Blake had already made a mark on the genre on both sides of the Atlantic.
Just a year after the release of his self-titled debut album in 2011, Blake began to produce songs for a UK grime artist called Trim, forming a relationship that would continue years later in 2016 when “RPG” was released via Blake’s record label, 1-800 DINOSAUR. A-list remixes featuring Lil Wayne and OutKast also elevated his profile across the pond, despite the use of the pseudonym, Harmonimix.
However, it wasn’t until Blake enlisted RZA for a guest verse on his sophomore album, Overgrown, that the US hip-hop industry fully sat up and took notice. As the de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA’s presence on “Take a Fall For Me” helped pave the way for others to take a chance on the unassuming British producer, including Chance the Rapper. Just months after his own breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap was released, Chance lent a verse to the song “Life Round Here” to great acclaim. Although subsequent rumors that the pair planned to move in together proved to be untrue, it’s still safe to say that Blake himself had become an unlikely bedfellow with the hip-hop industry by then, and had no plans to leave anytime soon either.
The following year, Kanye West openly declared that James Blake was his favorite artist, and production work for the likes of Drake cemented his appeal in the rap community in spite of his atypical background. At one point, Blake envisioned his third album as an “outward-looking, aggressive, hip-hop-influenced record” with guest features from stars like Ye, and although nothing materialized from the studio time that they shared, he still inspired Blake’s own music nonetheless.
Speaking to The Guardian, Blake described the impact of this experience, explaining that “Every time I leave a room that Kanye has been in, I feel a little electrified, a little inspired and a little more conscious of the fact that, if you’ve had your instincts proved to you, then you can follow them right to the end of the line, despite people’s criticisms.”
Since then, such instincts have led Blake to work with a whole host of rap stars, including Vince Staples and both of The Carters separately, as well as Kendrick Lamar, who he went on to tour with across Europe in 2018. Through these critically acclaimed collaborations, Blake has become a major fixture in the hip-hop scene without ever delivering the kind of vocals usually associated with the genre, aside perhaps from artists like Frank Ocean.
It’s no coincidence then that he and Blake have also worked together in the studio more than once. After naming Ocean as the biggest influence on his third album, The Colour In Anything, Blake went on to become “very good friends” with the American crooner, co-producing highlights like “Solo” and “Godspeed” for Ocean's sophomore release Blonde. Because of this, we wouldn’t be surprised if Andre’s appearance on Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)” was at least part of the reason why he ended up working with Blake again on Assume Form, too.
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Following all of these various forays into hip-hop, Blake’s fourth album brings everything full circle while representing a culmination of all the influences he’s drawn inspiration from thus far. “Stop Trying To Be God” was a huge chart success for both Blake and Travis Scott last year, so it’s only natural that the Astroworld-star would return the favor here for “Mile High,” and former support act Moses Sumney lends some soulful vocals to the record as well.
Sumney and other R&B peers like Khalid and Sampha all owe a debt to Blake, who in turn was also inspired by the soul singers of yesteryear. Just like them, he too often prioritizes emotions above all else, and it’s his willingness to open up like this that’s fueled detractors who dismiss him as just a “sad boy” indulging in “blubstep.” Both Drake and Kanye have also fended off such accusations in the past, particularly around the time of So Far Gone and 808s & Heartbreak respectively, but Blake was the one who inadvertently became the poster boy for ‘sad boys’ everywhere, something which he publicly objected to last year.
In a public statement, he derided the label, arguing that it’s “unhealthy and problematic” to poke fun at men simply for expressing their feelings, whether it’s through their music or simply in day to day life: “I now see the great strength and benefit for those around you in opening up.”
Blake once joked that the introspective nature of his music has effectively "subdued a generation," but instead, he’s helped subdue elements of rap’s bravado in favor of something far more personal, inspiring young men to be more emotionally honest in their music. One need look no further than the recent rise of emo rap and even the candid nature of projects like Kids See Ghosts to feel Blake’s influence.
Whether he’s openly talking about mental health with Dazed or allowing a platform for André 3000 to open up about his own struggles on “Where’s The Catch?,” it’s easy to see how Blake has helped shift the paradigm of hip-hop and music in general towards one of openness. Beyond the stuttering beats and warbling vocals or even his desire to break through the boundaries of genre, this is where Blake’s true legacy lies. Not too shabby for someone who’s been dismissed as just another ‘sad boy’ from London.
For more like this, read about Tame Impala's ongoing love affair with the world of hip-hop here.