When James Blake released the critically acclaimed CMYK EP in the fall of 2010, many identified the producer as a worthy heir to the UK’s grime/dubstep scene. With James Blake, the man follows up CMYK with a debut album that surpasses all expectations for the young star. On the title track to CMYK, Blake blended vocals from both R.Kelly’s “Caught Out There” and Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” in an obvious homage to the sample chops J Dilla perfected on Donuts. That EP, and everything Blake has produced up to this point, has been a tasteful blend of 90’s R&B, contemporary hip hop, and UK dubstep. On James Blake, the artist moves far beyond identifiable genres, creating something unique and wholly original. It is music that is soulful and warm, yet raw and minimal; contrasting moments of restrained beauty with distortion and tension.
While in the past Blake was content to sample other artists vocals, on James Blake the most prominent voice on the record is the artist’s own. Whether layered and affected, or hauntingly naked and alone, James Blake’s voice is the focus of every track. On “To Care”, he employs that Dilla-chop to turn his voice into background percussion, while on “Limit to Your Love”, he has the confidence to leave his vocals raw and up front, displaying a willing vulnerability that is both refreshing and endearing. This same track is the perfect example of the way he uses contrasting sounds to elicit emotion. The sparse track builds an uncomfortable tension that is finally resolved by an unexpected drop of heavy, wobbling bass. It has the amazing effect of being both undeniably beautiful and remarkably unsettling.
James Blake is a breathtaking debut album for a musician just 21 years old. It displays a confidence and vision missing from nearly all of his peers. Like the aforementioned Donuts, this is a piece of work that raises the bar for all his contemporaries, and I would not be surprised to see this album at the top of many Best of 2011 lists. Do not sleep on this record!