Long before James Blake had cemented his status as the UK’s top crooner, landing prominent collaborations with Beyoncé and securing studio sessions with Frank Ocean, he was dabbling in a far more obscure realm of electronic production.
Looking at the polished image of the artist today, who’s won a Mercury Prize and received a Grammy nomination in just the last few years, it’s a bit hard to imagine Blake poking around on a laptop, flipping samples of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” and Outkast’s “Miss Jackson” under a secret moniker. But that’s how the story begins, with the profoundly inventive singer-songwriter cracking into rap-radio hits to layer them with bit-crushed vocal distortions and highly experimental chords.
James Blake’s early work pried open established sounds with an almost forceful touch, often trading out the soft gloss that comes with charting singles for bass-inflected sounds that instead travel somewhere entirely new. He called himself Harmonimix; a perfectly succinct denomination that encapsulated his older techniques precisely. Harmonimix mixed-down harmonies and created refixes that booted once glitzy pop-music far left of center, smothering them with notions of psychedelia and off-tempo percussion to draw the listener far away and out into space.
Soon, Blake’s work started to take on pop qualities of its own. His earliest single, “Sparing The Horses” was the second track on an otherwise unassuming 12″ release, recorded from his bedroom while still attending university. A mere year later, the track was placed on Blow Your Head, a compilation album from Diplo’s Mad Decent record label, which propelled the track out of London and into the thumping stratosphere of the international dance scene.
The track would serve as a prophecy of things to come; Blake’s ability to defy genre around every turn, melting soulful hooks into dubstep inspired tracks and fusing Hip Hop verses with sharp electronic compositions, eventually placed him among music’s elite. On Blake’s latest album, The Colour in Anything, he’s opened up to collaboration like never before, not simply by ripping stems from existing hits, but instead by prioritizing A-list collaborations. He’s recently started work with Kanye West, Rick Rubin and Vince Staples, a roster that creates a sort of sensory-salivation simply by thinking of the possible results. While his attempted collaboration with Kanye didn’t quite materialize as planned, the production on “Timeless,” which never received its accompanying verse, hints at some incredibly remarkable potential.
Much of Blake’s recent, more inclusive approach comes from a desire to break out of the melancholy frame of mind that’s characterized the majority of his solo work to date. He recently stated in an interview that:
“Making a record on your laptop is not the most stimulating process socially. You can really fall into the sinkhole if you’re not careful. So I thought, F*ck this, I’m going to spend time with other engineers.”
Which is a pretty astute choice for an artist as sought after as James Blake; an insular approach to songwriting certainly won’t land you a collaboration with Beyoncé. While the result in The Colour in Anything is an album that’s far more expansive than anything previously attributed to his catalog, James Blake has always been one of the most eclectic producers on the planet. And his proclivity for Hip Hop is something that can’t be overemphasized.
His award-winning 2013 album, Overgrown features a guest verse from RZA on “Take a Fall For Me,” one of the most outstanding moments on the entire album. RZA’s voice glides over Blake’s icy production as he delivers lines that resemble prose more so than typical raps: “I heard through the grapevine/ That great love it takes time/ Sex shapes the body/ Truth shapes the mind.” The track melds two artists from opposite sides of the musical spectrum with enough precision to cause chills.
Blake’s affinity for great rap music doesn’t stop there. He goes on to sample Big Boi’s “Royal Flush” on “Every Day I Ran,” the album’s bonus track. Here, he loops a single line repeatedly,
“I am I laugh/ The last don’t be so fast/ Slow it down to a screeching halt/ But think before he talk,” accruing gradual levels of distortion and reverb along the way and thus, directly paying homage to his work as Harmonimix on a major release.
Perhaps the most acclaimed Hip Hop collaboration from James Blake comes on the heels of his original “Life Round Here” release. The track was soon followed by an additional remix version featuring Chance The Rapper, which takes the echoey-ascent of the instrumental track and infuses it with an added grit and dimensionality.
“Life Round Here” is yet another track that distinctly blends some of Blake’s deepest electronic productions with perfect utterances from an equally distinct voice. This ultimately creates a track where genre is largely passé, akin to Beyoncé’s “Forward,” so long as the right emotional resonance is ultimately reached. This in fact might just be Blake’s greatest power of all, allowing us to break down preconceived notions of what fits where, so that we can opt into a sonic experience which builds, breathes and expands, no matter what you decide to call it.
Visuals: Richie Williamson