Published Jan 30, 2019On the cover of James Blake's fourth album, Assume Form, the artist is seen in repose, hands clasped behind his head staring directly into the camera. Though Blake's expression isn't immediately discernable — "I'd say it's a quiet defiance, really," he tells Exclaim! in interview, with a laugh — it's the clearest he's appeared on a cover yet. He's no longer masked by double exposure, deep shades of blue or illustration.
"I wanted to, for this record at least, get away from covering up what I'm saying with too much metaphor," Blake explains by phone from Los Angeles. "I wanted to try and say the thing I mean, which is hard. It's scary to do that sometimes. I think the fear kept me from doing that before."
Accordingly, Assume Form gives the listener an even clearer view of Blake's present headspace. Galvanized by his romantic relationship with actress Jameela Jamil, Blake sings on the title track, "I will assume form, I'll be out of my head this time. I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable." On "Barefoot in the Park," he affirms, "Who needs balance? I'll see you every day." On "Power On," he sheepishly admits, "I thought you were second place to every song."
"I do think that this is kind of album I can play for my mum," he adds. "You know, like 'Mum, I'm all right. Here it is.' I am expecting people to be surprised, and that's fine."
In the time since releasing the emotionally weighty The Colour in Anything in 2016, Blake's newfound openness has demonstrably extended to his professional life. That year, collaborations with Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Vince Staples and Travis Scott gave way to work with JAY-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Mount Kimbie in 2017.
In 2018, he appeared on a pair of tracks from Lamar's Black Panther soundtrack, mixed and co-produced Oneohtrix Point Never's Age Of and teamed with Scott again for ASTROWORLD cut "STOP TRYING TO BE GOD."
"There's a thrill I get in seeing somebody expressing themselves in such a different way," Blake explains. "It's always nice to have a feeling of achievement that's shared amongst people. For me that was a fairly new thing."
Assume Form boasts the most credited collaborators Blake has gathered on a full-length to date. Scott, whom Blake first met through in-demand music video director Nabil, sheds his AutoTune for a subdued turn on "Mile High." That track also features a recently resurfaced Metro Boomin, who then appears on the Moses Sumney-assisted "Tell Them." Blake tells Exclaim! that he only first met Rosalía the day they hit the studio together, enlisting the Spanish singer's vocal and lyrical talents for "Barefoot in the Park" after being floored by her 2017 debut Los ángeles.
"They've all so intelligently and sensitively slotted themselves in to whichever track, where they felt part of this world," Blake proudly says of his collaborators, further noting the contributions of Mount Kimbie's Dominic Maker and Strong Asian Mothers' Kalim Patel. "It feels good to say that it's like a group enterprise, this album, rather than just a James Blake record in the sense of old."
Speaking with Exclaim! in 2011, Blake didn't hesitate to name OutKast as his dream collaborators, and sampled the inimitable Atlanta duo's "ATLiens" in producing Vince Staples' 2016 track "War Ready." Two years on from that, he has realized his dream, teaming with André 3000 for album cut "Where's the Catch?" and last year's surprise SoundCloud drop "Look Ma No Hands."
Blake speaks of the elusive André reverently, laughing wryly when asked if he's now being regularly pressed for details of the rapper's every move.
"He has taught me so much," Blake says, "Not just in the few times that we've worked together, but through his back catalogue," adding that he was appreciative of advice the industry vet gave him with regard to expanding his personal and professional horizons.
"He's a private person, and I don't want to talk too much on it, but I'll say that I think the open-mindedness to new sounds and dignity with which he approaches making music with other artists is really inspiring," Blake explains. "I actually think that was something I took from working with him. Sometimes it's easy to get swept up in what other people are doing, and try and copy them or try and get in on the party. But I love the way he really appreciates that feeling of discovery. I think that's what drew me to his music in the first place."