James Blake is so British that he actually eats crumpets. Like for real. The 24 year old electro-soul wunderkind is trained in piano and cut his teeth as a club DJ before turning his eyes to producing his own music. He didn’t start producing until he heard dubstep at an underground club in London — it was the first time he’d heard that style of music. “That was when I decided to pick up Logic and start making beats and stuff. I had been playing piano for a long time but I hadn’t been producing until then. It was just really heavy, emotionally and sound-wise,” Blake said in an interview in 2011.
The track he’s talking about is “Haunted” by Digital Mystikz, and if you give it a listen you’ll hear how Blake’s music has definitely been informed by that style of dubstep — not the frat bro dubstep you’re probably thinking of at this very second. In a famous interview where Blake came for some American dubstep producers weaves — here’s looking at you, Skrillex — here’s what he had to say:
The things that drew me to dubstep in the first place weren’t necessarily the kind of testosterone-driven environments that you got from say, late jungle or some of the drum ‘n’ bass stuff that was happening after that. I think the dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers — who I can’t even be bothered naming — have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel.
I mean he couldn’t even be BOTHERED to talk about Skrillex in an interview! The shade of it all! But in a crowded field of musical production you’ve got to make a name for yourself. And with his soulful voice, piano chops and love of beat machines, Blake has created a style all his own.
And I am a little #obsessed.
The British crooner’s sophomore effort Overgrown dropped recently, and he doesn’t even care if you download it illegally. “Why wouldn’t you?, he told NME. Ever since rumors about this thing started swirling around months ago I’ve been freaking out about this day, counting down to it like an Alexander McQueen sample sale or something like that. When “Retrograde” dropped in February I was sitting in a cafe, as per usual, and I gave it a quick listen. Wasn’t sure what to expect exactly. Then, “suddenly I’m hit,” and I actually remember being like “Fucckk!!!” out loud in front of the entirety of the cafe.
What can I say, music is powerful stuff.
The first thing to notice about Overgrown is how slick, mature and polished it is. It’s tighter and feels like a full album. Many people, including Blake himself, felt like his 2011 self-titled debut was less an album and more a complication of songs. On Overgrown, however, Blake sounds a bit happier and the beats are slightly less devastating. The brilliant thing about his unique musical palette, though, is that every song feels composed — and I mean that in the classical sense. The swells. The odd harmonies. The fact that in every song you can hear several different things if you listen closely — all of that plus the really interesting combination of falsetto, piano, and drum machines lend this record a frosty, distant feel, but it’s a feeling you want to have over and over.
“Retrograde” is by far the best thing on the record and it feels like the glue that holds the entire album together. “Voyeur” is the danciest, I mean as dance-y as you can get on a moody James Blake record. “Take a Fall For Me,” which features RZA from Wu Tang Clan, might seem weird if you’re not familiar with Blake’s “Confidence Boost” collaboration as Harmonimix with East London rapper Trim. The Brian Eno-assisted “Digital Lion” was a track I didn’t care for when it was released a few weeks ago but it makes so much more sense within the context of the record. The last, bonus track is epic — second only to “Retrograde.” And on the title record “Overgrown,” a cloudy, beautiful number, Blake reveals his destiny and motivation when he sings, “I don’t want to be a star/but a stone on the shore.”
The brilliant thing about music is that when an album speaks to you, it really speaks to you. It hits you in all the right spots. It connects to you, and it’s a kind of intimate connection that feels like that strong sexual chemistry you feel for someone you really like. Overgrown is an interesting, maybe even intellectual electro record that will take you to that rich, emotional place.