James Blake’s fourth album is an intransigent study of the darker sides to love, strengthening his already abundant appeal among the pop music elite. Adding collaborators such as Travis Scott and André 3000 to a list that consists of Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West to name a few; Assume Form has further cemented James Blake’s status as the in-demand artist for despondent ballads.
The sonic scenery which Blake depicts on this record has him predominantly leaning towards contempary hip-hop, albeit delivered via his trademark ambient melancholic sound. This is not surprising considering his recent body of work included supporting Kendrick Lamar on his DAMN world tour as well as featuring on the Black Panther compilation alongside Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak, Jay Rock and Future. Blake oversees production throughout the album ensuring the contributions by Dominic Maker, Dre Moon and Metro Boomin’ were in-line with his artistic vision.
This cohesion is one of the strongest aspects of the record. Every little nuance feels like it has its place within the minimalistic approach, drawing Blake’s delicate vocals to the foreground making them powerful while maintaining their vulnerability. Songs such as ‘Assume Form’, ‘Into the Red’, ‘I’ll Come Too’, ‘Power On’ and ‘Don’t Miss It’ have a clear natural progression, working in perfect harmony with the vocal arrangements. The shifts in emotion and pitch are not immediately apparent but beautifully choreographed around these melodies.
At times, Blake’s lyrics can be somewhat borderline cliché, although when the presiding theme of the album is love, it may be hard to avoid a few clichéd notions. What becomes apparent around the halfway mark is that Blake may not have put as much emphasis on what he’s saying in comparison to how he’s saying it. His delivery by turns, is fantastically complex yet delightfully simple. The last thirty seconds of the title track ‘Assume Form’ see Blake switching to an almost falsetto pitch, harmonising beautifully alongside the subtle vocal sample underneath the main piano chords. In stark contrast, ‘Mile High’ has him singing in a flat, more or less spoken-word pace at times with hints of auto-tune, making the featured artist, Travis Scott, his ideal vocal sparring partner.
The magnum opus of the album is ‘Where’s the Catch?’ featuring André 3000. Blake produced this song entirely, fine-tuning the beat making it fit for purpose to a near faultless standard. Dré’s use of repetition with specific emphasis on holorime is executed in perfect syncopation with the production. ‘Where’s the Catch?’ is Blake and Dré expressing their scepticism on love; how can a relationship be faultless, there must be a catch? The metaphor of love’s demise used in the closing bars of André’s verse is truly magnificent.
“We build and discover gold,
Alchemists make it silver before you know it,
Negative nickels until it’s void,
Aluminum foil it back to soil.”
The most memorable songs on this record are full of conflicting ideologies celebrating nuance, whereas the flashes of sheer brilliance are found within the minutiae of Blake’s well-placed intricacies.