In 2009, Blake began his recording career with a well-received remix of Untold’s dubstep stomper ‘Stop What You’re Doing’, though it was his first solo 12”, released later that year, which caught notice beyond the dubstep crowd. ‘Air & Lack Thereof’ was a bass-heavy head-nodder whose inventive melodies, clipped beats and treated vocals invested the genre with a fresh dynamic. The track became a favourite of tastemaker DJ Gilles Peterson, who gave it repeated airplay on his BBC Radio 1 show.
The following year saw a flurry of new releases, with each developing Blake’s sound further. A joint project with Airhead, the dense and minimal ‘Pembroke’ was followed by a debut EP, The Bells Sketch. The former established his signature style of crisp, polyrhythmic beats, woozy synths and low-slung bass; the latter was embellished with Blake’s own distorted and pitched-up vocals. He released his second EP in May, the 90s-soul-sampling CMYK. The title track is a masterful blend of R&B vocal loops (some obvious, others warped beyond recognition) with icy cold electronica. It was his most innovative work to date and marked the first tentative steps beyond the intrinsic limitations of dubstep. September’s Klavierwerke EP pushed those innovations, interpolating manipulated samples of Blake’s disembodied vocals with spare piano refrains and handclaps accompanied by hisses, pops, crackles and well-placed moments of silence. It was a collection as unsettling as it was memorable.
A remarkable run of releases, the three EPs gained Blake international recognition as one of electronic music’s most innovative producers. That achievement was recognised come award season, as he was nominated for the BBC’s Sound Of 2011 accolade, made runner-up at the Brit Awards Critics’ Choice, and was awarded Track Of The Year for ‘CMYK’ at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards. So enamoured were Pitchfork that they took the unusual step of collectively hailing three EPs (The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke) as their eighth favourite album of the year.
Blake had been dropping hints of an album based chiefly on piano and voice, though the radical stylistic departure of its preceding single, ‘Limit To Your Love’, still shocked many. A cover of a ballad by Canadian singer Feist, it placed Blake’s raw, unadorned vocals centre stage among a genre-defying mix of spare piano lines and deep bass wobbles.
Released on his own label, ATLAS, the highly experimental, self-titled debut which followed expanded on that single’s bold new direction. As a collection of songs, it looked as much to Joni Mitchell as it did dubstep pioneer Burial, placing bass-heavy electronic music directly within the singer-songwriter tradition. Second single ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, a cover of Blake’s father’s song ‘Where To Turn’, begins as a straightforward synth-and-vocals lament before being slowly enveloped in a barrage of echoed effects. On ‘Unluck’ he pairs his Auto-Tuned voice with unsettling electronic scrapes and sharp percussive clicks, while ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ features a repeated refrain of familial dysfunction over an unsettling, oddly synched mix of jazz synth stabs. Elsewhere, ‘To Care (Like You)’ mixes heavily processed vocals with dubstep synths and hip-hop snares, while ‘I Mind’ was a lone throwback to earlier electro experiments, beginning with a delicate refrain of looped vocals and piano before refracting them into warped abstractions over an insistent dance beat. Released on 4 February 2011, the album reached No.9 on the UK charts and met with almost universal critical acclaim, going on to be nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize.
Blake’s prolific streak continued when he released ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir’, an ethereal, heavily Auto-Tuned collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, in August 2011. The song also featured on his October 2011 EP, Enough Thunder. A continuation of the debut album’s singer-songwriter fixations, it featured a spare cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You’ alongside further ethereal, piano-accompanied compositions such as ‘Once We All Agree’, and moody electronic experiments the likes of ‘We Might Feel Unsound’.
Released in December, the Love What Happened Here EP was a return to a more structured, beat-focussed style of dance music, though the end result was no less experimental. Highlights include the title track, which excels with its soulful keyboard flourishes, while on ‘At Birth’, Blake delved into house music for the first time, investing the genre with his own unique characteristics. Final track ‘Curbside’ was his take on the hip-hop beat-tape sketch, segueing a wealth of samples and off-kilter beats with his by now requisite treated vocal snatches.
As successful and acclaimed as the debut album had been, Blake proclaimed himself dissatisfied with the result, and he spent much of 2012 plotting it’s follow-up, his only issued output being the sparkling ‘Confidence Boost’ collaboration with British rapper Trim, which Blake released under the pseudonym Harmonimix.
Released on 5 April 2013, sophomore effort Overgrown was a continuation of the songwriting traditions of its predecessor, though with a greater emphasis on R&B and gospel. A more firmly structured set of songs featuring stronger, more direct vocal performances, the album was exemplified by the mesmerising and grandiose proceeding single ‘Retrograde’. Elsewhere, the tender piano ballad ‘DLM’ gave hints of jazz influences, while the Brian Eno-guesting ‘Digital Lion’ wrapped Blake’s vocals around a warm fug of echoed beats and sampled effects. Elsewhere, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA contributes an amusingly Anglo-centric verse to ‘Take A Fall For Me’, while the most dance-friendly number, ‘Voyeur’, deployed a neat line in Jamie xx-style electronica. The ethereal closing pair of ‘To The Last’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’ were among the producer’s most hauntingly beautiful pieces.
Debuting at No.8 in the UK album charts, and at No.1 in the US Dance/Electronic charts, Overgrown became James Blake’s highest-charting album to date. It was his most critically acclaimed release too, going on to win the 2013 Mercury Prize and earning Blake his first Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, while it reached numerous critical end-of-year lists.
It was a year and a half before Blake’s next release, the 200 Press EP, which he put out on his own label, 1-800-Dinosaur, in December 2014. As with previous EPs, it was primarily a groove-based affair: the title track eschewed Blake’s own vocals for a barely recognisable André 3000 sample, while ‘Building It Still’ paired distorted and abrasive samples with fierce basslines. Arguably the most challenging work of Blake’s career ended with ‘Words We Both Know’, a warped and sped-up poem set to disjointed piano and electronic pulses.
It was only a matter of time before Blake embarked on a high-profile collaboration (Kanye West declared him his favourite artist and in 2012 flew the producer to the US for a meeting), yet his appearance on Beyoncé’s mega-hit album Lemonade, released in April 2016, still surprised many. Receiving a co-writing credit on album opener ‘Pray You Catch Me’ and providing vocals on ‘Forward’ validated Blake’s single-minded belief in his unique musical path and confirmed his standing as one of the most influential and sought-after talents in the music industry.
In a busy few weeks, Blake surprise-released his long-awaited third album, The Colour In Anything, on 6 May. More expansive than its predecessors, both in its length and its range of influences, the album had been teased two months earlier by ‘Modern Soul’, a spine-tingling showcase of Blake’s trademark lush melodies, powerful vocals, off-kilter piano and eerie samples. Elsewhere on the album, ‘Radio Silence’ blends hauntingly beautiful melodies with the coldest of trap beats and filmic synths – an added cinematic dimension that’s also present in the 80s-horror-referencing synths of ‘I Hope My Life’ and ‘Two Men Down’. The deeply soulful, Frank Ocean-assisted ‘My Willing Heart’, and a duet with Justin Vernon on the slow-burning ‘I Need A Forest Fire’, both confirm Blake as a modern master of the collaboration.
With his 2011 debut full-length, dubstep-via-fractured R&B producer James Blake delivered on the promise of his earlier singles while at the same time overhauling his sound, moving away somewhat from the sample-heavy dubstep of those tracks to a sparser atmosphere. The album focused more on Blake's equally haunted piano and vocal lines, submerged elements of implied rhythms, dubstep's subsonic bass resonance, and ghostly samples to create a picture of restraint and contained emotional upheaval. The album felt not so much like the calm before the storm, but like silently watching a hurricane slowly and soundlessly move closer from the distance. Sophomore album Overgrown offers a similar feeling, but Blake approaches the songs here with even more restraint and a subtly deconstructed take on pop. Subtlety is perhaps Blake's greatest attribute on Overgrown, with what could even be the album's heaviest moments blurring into a pleasantly melancholy whole through deft production choices. Take for instance "Take a Fall for Me," a partially rhythm-less track featuring Wu-Tang's RZA in an extended set of rhymes over a looping sample of static and processed backing vocals, and samples that recall Tricky's earliest work. The jagged edges of a track like this could render it awkward with more obvious production, but Blake's touch pushes even RZA's toughest verses into a rainy, lamenting place. The skeletal piano of the debut returns on tracks like "DLM" or the gorgeous album-closer "Our Love Comes Back," which has the faintest hints of Chet Baker's springtime loneliness buried in Blake's mumbling blue-eyed R&B vocals. Brian Eno even shows up to collaborate on the sputtering rhythms of "Digital Lion," perhaps the most hyperactive track here, though only in relative terms. Somewhere between the vacant echoes of dub and trip-hop, dubstep's sample-slicing production, and the contained heartbreak of a singer/songwriter playing piano to himself in an empty room, Blake has crafted Overgrown. It's understated to the point of invisibility at times, with Blake subtracting even himself from the songs, allowing the lead vocals or hooks to be consumed by the song at large. Though the stormy textures and somber reflections are pretty specific to a particular mood, Overgrown finds and fits that mood perfectly. While it might take listeners a few spins to find the right head space for the album, once they get there, it's an easy place to get lost in. Words: Fred Thomas
During 2009 and 2010, James Blake issued a clutch of abstract dubstep singles on Hemlock, Hessle Audio, and R&S. Each release increased anticipation for the producer’s next move as he continually shuffled the deck on his bristly, off-center, and generally groove-less tracks, some of which incorporated vocals -- he sampled Kelis and Aaliyah on “CMYK,” for instance -- or his own voice, heavily processed. The Klavierwerke EP, the last in the series, was the most stripped down of the bunch. The day after it was released, Blake uploaded a video for his dramatic cover version of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” which indicated that the focus on his voice and sparse backing would continue. Consisting of Blake's pensive vocal, a simple but affecting piano, and recurring beat weighed down by sub-bass, it’s one of the most straightforward tracks on Blake’s brief debut album. The following “Give Me My Month” deviates most from Blake’s vinyl output; it’s a wistful piano-and-voice ballad that has far more in common with Procol Harum than any given contemporary linked to Blake. The rest of the tracks are more like exercises in sound manipulation and reduction than songs. The approach is no fault, but Blake pares it down to such an extent that the material occasionally sounds not just tentative but feeble, fatigued, even, as on “I Never Learnt to Share,” where one creaky line is repeated and treated throughout, placed over swelling synthesizer frequencies and a stamping beat. “The Wilhelm Scream,” one of the album’s highlights, is far more effective, a ballad with a pulse that increases in intensity with skillfully deployed reverb and surging waves of soft noise. Words: Andy Kellman
Little was heard from James Blake throughout an almost three-year period that followed Overgrown, his second straight Top Ten U.K. album. He appeared on an Airhead track and released a 12" on his 1-800-Dinosaur label, yet it wasn't until February 2016, during his BBC Radio 1 program, that listeners got their initial taste of album three. Drawn like a scene from a dissolving relationship that immediately precedes release and relief, "Modern Soul" hinted that the album could be a bit brighter with less of the anguish that permeated the singer/producer's first two albums. Another song, a vaguely aching minimal dub ballad, was aired two months later, possibly chosen because it too had a title, "Timeless," that could potentially wind up detractors. In late April, when it seemed like he might spring on his audience a tune named something like "Proper Music," Blake received a profile boost from Beyoncé, whose Lemonade prominently sported a pair of songs featuring his assistance. A couple weeks later, the long-delayed The Colour in Anything materialized at a length nearly that of his first two albums put together. Recording began in London. Once stalled by creative fatigue, Blake decamped to Rick Rubin's Malibu studio. The sunnier environment had no evident effect on the album's outlook. Regardless of location, Blake continues to deal in fraught romantic trauma, setting the album's tone immediately with "Radio Silence," a mix of mournful gospel and surging synthesizers in which "I can't believe this, you don't wanna see me" is stated something like ten times. As he sifts through the wreckage in puzzled and lucid states, he still stretches and distorts his frail but transfixing choir boy voice. A few lines are expressed with Auto-Tune fillips, some are enhanced through fine layering, and others are left unembellished, sometimes sunk into the mix of basslines that tap and thrum, percussion that gently skitters and scrapes, and synthesizers, applied like coating, that swell and swarm. Most disorienting is "Put That Away and Talk to Me," akin to a malfunctioning lullaby mobile playing a late-'90s Timbaland knockoff. Blake sought some help, not only from Rubin, who co-produced the Malibu sessions, but from Justin Vernon, who assisted with two songs and is heard on "I Need a Forest Fire," while Frank Ocean co-wrote another pair, including the all-voice closer, where Blake solemnly resolves -- ta-da -- that contentment is up to him. Compared to the self-titled debut and Overgrown, this a more graceful and denser purging, one that can soundtrack some intense wallowing or, at a low volume, throb and murmur unobtrusively in the background.
Words: Andy Kellman