James Blake’s style permeates the zeitgeist of today’s popular music. Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” Jay-Z’s “4:44” and the “Black Panther” soundtrack are just a few albums to which the British singer, songwriter and producer has contributed his talents in the past few years. Blake’s blend of hip-hop, electronic and R&B elements may not be easily summarized with mere words, yet it is almost unmistakable — it both inspires and represents the currently favored type of radio hit that bends and defies genre.
“Assume Form,” Blake’s latest album release, demonstrates a slight departure from his earlier work. A little bit warmer and much happier, this album is, at its core, a celebratory affirmation of love, a shift in tone from the isolation and numbness that define the sound and subject matter of his previous releases.
“When you touch me I wonder what you would want with me,” Blake softly lilts on the new record’s eponymous opening track. It is a surprising beginning compared to the abrasive “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me” line repeated in “Radio Silence,” the opener to his 2016 album, “The Colour in Anything.”
Ditching his self-consciousness while maintaining humility, Blake’s ongoing metamorphosis is perhaps most evident on this new opener, a helpful primer for the LP’s central area of exploration — that jumbling of beauty and fear that comes with being so utterly bound with another.
Blake tweeted that his girlfriend, “The Good Place”’s Jameela Jamil, is the reason this album exists. But the real power in “Assume Form” comes from the artist’s ability to capture the myriad feelings one often experiences when they find a partner with whom they feel comfortable sharing their whole selves.
From the sexy “Mile High,” featuring Travis Scott and Metro Boomin, in which Blake praises the virtues of an intimate evening at home, to “Are You In Love?,” in which he implores his partner to confirm a mutual, hard-earned affection, Blake covers a spectrum of romantic emotion throughout the record.
One of the standout songs is “Where’s The Catch?,” which features an incredible André 3000 verse and has Blake playfully questioning the perfection of his relationship.
Despite these successes, however, this record is not quite as cohesive as some of his other work. Compared to “Colour,” “Assume Form” does not have the same easy and fluid progression that allows for repetitive listens. And, unlike his sophomore effort, the Mercury Prize-winning “Overgrown,” Blake does not put forth any songs with a cutting-edge feel.
Also, not every song on the album is equally strong. While some are undeniable head-banging jams or moving ballads, others such as “Into the Red,” while not necessarily stodgy, are still unable to compete with their associated tracks.
But, even if this album does not reach the high bar and tastemaker status that has defined Blake’s career thus far, “Assume Form” is still a heart-warming listen that promotes a relatively healthy depiction of love.
It is a welcome sign of progression for Blake, who described 2016’s “Colour” as his “coming-of-age” record in an interview with The Guardian. When contemplating the reason for the isolation that so greatly defined who he was in and outside of his work, Blake said he realized the importance of first evaluating himself before seeking a connection with anyone else.
This earlier self-evaluation not only pays off, but continues on this album. Able to move somewhat away from his inner turmoil while still maintaining a personal and intimate quality in his lyrics, here, Blake provides us with what may be the most open version of himself yet. And on the cover of the album, for the first time, we see his face unobscured.
What may be the crowning jewel of “Assume Form” is its closing, “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” a haunting and beautiful musical offering in which Blake seeks to rock his lover to sleep with his gentle, quavering melody. This selflessness and dedication to feeling is one that Blake has yet truly to explore. Yet, it seems evidence of his new maturity and provides an abundance of hope for future releases.