The British artist opens up, both personally and sonically, on his fourth album.
Last year on a panel at the Performing Arts Medicine Association's annual symposium, Blake explained how the stresses of his early career led to suicidal thoughts. "I was taken away from normal life essentially at an age where I was half-formed," he said. A couple of months before, he'd publicly pushed back against journalists who label him "sad boy" for singing about his feelings, describing it as "unhealthy" and "problematic." He spoke about how passionately he regarded "the road to mental health and happiness," and how, above all, this journey requires honesty. The ongoing process of self-acceptance and discussion of his depression helps shape Assume Form. Across his last two albums, Overgrown and The Colour In Anything, Blake gradually revealed himself—sonically, lyrically, emotionally—but on Assume Form he kicks the front door wide open.
This might be because in 2019, Blake's reality couldn't be further from that of the young dance music producer who broke through almost a decade ago. His list of recent collaborators—Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Frank Ocean—reads like a partial list of the planet's leading mainstream artists. "I know in the artist community everybody loves Blake," said Rick Rubin, the legendary producer who worked on Blake's last album, presumably with Kanye West, Madonna and Drake in mind. Blake's relationship with the actress Jameela Jamil is covered in gossip columns. Whatever the level just below "household name" is, Blake is there.
I mention all of this not for TMZ titillation but because, in light of Assume Form, it now feels relevant to Blake's sound. It's an album that steps out of the cloistered space of his past music into the world around it. A little pop music seeps into his usual electronic soul and gospel style. The collaborators seem to have more influence than they did on Blake's previous albums. There's little here that could be anyone else, but the tone—less heavy, more hopeful, brighter colours—is different, even as he deals directly with despair.
Overall, many more things are gained than lost in this development. The "sad boy" descriptions were tactless and unhelpful, and Blake rightly called them out. But, to make the most generous read of the situation, some of the comments likely stemmed from the sheer emotional outlay of absorbing his music, particularly the 17 tracks of his last album. On Assume Form, Blake engages us on the topics of love, loss and mental imbalance on fresh terms. On the excellent "Can't Believe The Way We Flow," "Are You In Love?" and "I'll Come Too," which all appear in the album's strong midsection, Blake is practically beaming. There are videos from late 2017 of him performing "Can't Believe The Way We Flow," a sort of ethereal, sample-orientated hip-hop track that includes the love-struck line: "I can't believe the way we live together."
Variations on the track's relatively simple hip-hop beat appear frequently on the album, which brings us to the two Metro Boomin collaborations, one of the record's talking points. Do the skittering hi-hats and low-end pressure of one of hip-hop's most famous producers work in this context? I'm leaning towards yes, particularly in the case of the track with Moses Sumney, but their back-to-back placement so early on feels slightly like too much too soon.
The André 3000 track may also split opinion. The urgent piano line could be from a paranoid Wu-Tang or Mobb Deep classic, and it's matched by Blake and André 3000's lyrics (sample line: "So perfect, so perfect, so why do I look for curtains?"), but the four-on-the-floor kick is almost awkward in its simplicity. Blake has the best chemistry with the breakout Catalonian artist Rosalía. On "Barefoot In The Park" they harmonise in English and Spanish over a bubbling beat that draws from Rosalía's modern reimagining of flamenco, a nice example of the creative openness Blake pursues throughout.
The bright lights of the album's middle may lull you into thinking this is a happily-ever-after story, but we're reminded in the final stretch that no such thing exists. Blake sees how distorted his thinking had become on "Power On," responding to a list of philosophical questions with the simple admission that he "was wrong." He's soothing his lover to sleep with choral vocal tones on "Lullaby For My Insomniac," reminding us how masterfully he handles space and silence.
When "Don't Miss It" was released back in May, I didn't consider how closely its female vocal part resembled Kim Deal on the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?," but it's an appropriate coincidence. "Everything is about me," Blake sings. "I am the most important thing." The lyrics and vocal manipulations mimic the mind's incessant loops and leaps, underpinned by a solemn piano. The track, one of Blake's best, speaks powerfully to the mental rumination fuelling depression, but it also retains hope. The psychologist Carl Rogers once said, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." It's an idea that could apply to Blake on Assume Form.
Fri / 18 Jan 2019
01. Assume Form
02. Mile High feat. Travis Scott and Metro Boomin
03. Tell Them feat. Moses Sumney and Metro Boomin
04. Into The Red
05. Barefoot In The Park feat. Rosalía
06. Can't Believe The Way We Flow
07. Are You In Love?
08. Where's The Catch? feat. André 3000
09. I'll Come Too
10. Power On
11. Don't Miss It
12. Lullaby For My Insomniac