James Blake’s spent the majority of his career being the poster child for the “sad boy” movement — a label he’s tried his hardest to shed. In 2018, following the release of the single, “Don’t Miss It,” Blake posted a screenshot of a note on Twitter which aired out critics who categorized him and the music he creates under the diminutive “sad boy” label.
“I can’t help but notice, as I do whenever I talk about my feelings in a song, that the words ‘sad boy’ are used to describe it. I’ve always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings,” he wrote. “There is no great victory in machismo and bravado in the end. The road to mental health and happiness, which I feel so passionately about, is paved with honesty.”
The appeal in Blake’s music isn’t simply derived from the emotions he brings out through the imagery, but the melancholic textures his production wallows in. 2016’s The Colour In Anything depicts grave loneliness and alienation. His fourth studio album, Assume Form, is on an entirely opposite end of the spectrum.
Blake sounds less lonely than he ever has before. Largely due to his girlfriend Jameela Jamil’s impact in his personal life — he credited her on Twitter for the album’s existence — but also in part due to the diverse list of collaborators he brought on board.
Blake’s title track, which also serves as the album’s intro, is in direct contrast to “Radio Silence,” the opening track of The Colour In Anything. “Assume Form” opens up with warm, celestial chords that feel like a euphoric sense of liberation. Blake is no longer cooped up in this shell that protects him from the world — instead, he opens up, ready to tackle the same anxieties he expressed in previous projects.
Travis Scott, who collaborated with Blake on Astroworld, helps the singer/producer deliver an introspective take on one-night stands for the song “Mile High” which also features Metro Boomin. James Blake and Metro Boomin co-production on the track, alongside Wavey and Dre Moon, gives a sense of urgency that’s masked under tranquility through Blake and Travis Scott’s melodic tones.
Metro Boomin’s production is subsequently heard on, “Tell Them,” a hypnotic banger also featuring Moses Sumney. Metro’s like a snake charmer on the song– his production is mesmerizing, captivating the listener before Moses and Blake vocals slither in with trance-inducing delivery.
“For me, it’s a monologue on a one-night stand: There’s fear, there’s not wanting to be too close to anybody. Just sort of a self-analysis, really,” he said about the song on the Assume Form’s iTunes page.
Metro Boomin and Travis Scott might be the most prolific artists on the project, but the stand-out performance goes to Andre 3000, who appears on “Where’s The Catch?”Andre and Blake are similar in a lot of ways: they’re both critically lauded artists with mysterious personas who rarely share any insight into their private life unless it’s through their music. As Assume Form deals with Blake’s newfound openness to the world, Andre 3000 provides a rare glimpse into his own struggles with mental health.
“All my pets are mystic, keep me in cage/ Aww, my head twisted, keeps me spinnin’ ‘round for days/ Exorcism, pessimism has arisen/ There’s no reason really, treason to myself so silly/ Perfect, so perfect, so why I look for curtains/ Uncertain, but certainly false alarm’s alertin’,” he raps on the verse, vividly capturing his anxieties and also providing an explanation to why we don’t hear from him as much as we want to. Blake’s hook is a reassuring response in a sense, as he sings “What’s The Catch?”
The collaborations — specifically with rappers — find Blake flirting with his own paranoia and anxieties, but he’s at his most joyful and affectionate on his solo cuts. “I’ll Come Too” and “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” find Blake at his most comfortable and loving. Blake’s uncertainty on “Are You In Love?” is juxtaposed with his willingness to finally let his guard down in order to take the next step in a relationship.
Closing the project with “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” Blake delivers a serene and conclusive finale. The beat compromises of samples of his own vocals layered into a choral effect while his main vocals drift over top of it before subtly fading away. The song is very literal to its title.
The Colour In Anything was Blake’s moment to address his loneliness and alienation, but he found himself even more self-aware on Assume Form. He’s in a blissful state but more importantly, he’s aware of what he needed to do to get there.
Sonically, Blake’s stood adjacent to the hip-hop world for years, working with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Jay-Z and more, but he fully embraces it on Assume Form.
Assume Form is a stand-out record in Blake’s catalog. He gives us the closure that he’s been longing for in his past few albums. He’s found happiness in his life which translates into the art. Blake’s left the dark space that he’s wallowed in for the past three albums and seizes emotions and experiences that he’s pushed away in the past.