When I first saw the track list for Assume Form, my eyes lit up. I immediately noticed the song “Mile High” featuring Travis Scott and Metro Boomin. Back in August, Travis had James feature on “Stop Trying To Be God,” one of my favorite songs and music videos of 2018. Naturally, I was excited about their follow-up collaboration.
I was also excited to hear how James’s crooning would sound over a Metro Boomin beat. Although Metro has been one of the best and most consistent hip-hop producers over the past few years, I had not personally heard him collaborate much with artists of other genres. Would James’s singing mesh with Metro’s trap-style production?
Sure enough, I loved it. Far and away my favorite song on the album, and I have had it on repeat since the first time I played it. On multiple occasions, I have found myself shouting the refrain out loud in my apartment: “Lasting like Duracell/Lasting like Duracell/40 days, 40 nights/Feel like a holy night.” Throughout the song, Travis shows off his vocal range, using his signature auto-tuned style. The first time I heard him hit those high notes in the aforementioned lines, I almost fell out of my chair. James is no slouch either, providing a laid-back, yet confident performance.
James does not hide his emotions. He begins the album with the title track, singing haunting lines such as, “Gone through the motions my whole life/I hope this is the first day/That I connect motion to feeling.” In his interview with Apple Music, James, explaining what inspired these lyrics, said “The plan is to become reachable, to assume material form, to leave my head and join the world. These slight feelings of repression lead to this feeling of I’m not in my body, I’m not really experiencing life through first person. It’s like I’m looking at it from above. Which is a phenomenon a lot of people describe when they’re talking about depression.” James suggests not giving in to this detachment and depression. Connect your spirit with your body. Take control. Assume Form.
Behind the heartfelt piano playing and vocals on this song is a troubled man struggling with depression. He samples a recording of poet Rage Almighty reading his poem Depression: “It feels like a thousand pounds of weight holding your body down in a pool of water, barely reaching your chin.” The pool of water can be seen as his depression. The water is at his chin, almost hindering his ability to breathe. All of the negative feelings that James is having are almost too much to handle. Almost.
Despite how difficult it is for him to deal with this pain, he still finds the strength to get through it: “I will assume form, I’ll leave the ether/I will assume form, I’ll be out of my head this time.” Despite being a successful figure in the music industry, James shows that he is just like anyone else. Sadness and pain are a part of everyone’s life and it’s relief for any of us when we decide to “leave the ether” of depression.
James continues to take the listener on a tour of his emotions. In “Barefoot In the Park,” he sings a beautiful duet with Rosalía, “Who needs to pray?/Who needs balance? I’ll see you every day.” Simply being with his lover is enough to keep him at peace. Even though it has only been four songs since the introduction, he is already in a better place mentally. At first, he was a troubled man, enveloped in an intense state of negative emotions. Now, with the help of his significant other, he has been able to smile and keep those feelings at bay.
Three songs later, the listener is given a treat. “Where’s the Catch” features a layered verse from hip-hop legend Andre 3000, reminding me of the guy from the Dos Equis commercials; Andre doesn’t always give features, but when he does, he makes sure the verse is excellent. James starts off singing that he is so ecstatic with his relationship, that he’s wondering if there’s a catch. But before you have too much time to process James’s lyrics, Andre steals the show: “All my pets are mystic keeps me in a cage/Aww, my head is twisted, keeps me spinning ‘round for days/Exorcism, pessimism has arisen/There’s no reason really, treason to myself so silly/So perfect, so perfect, why do I look for curtains?”
Never one to waste a bar, he immediately gives the listener a lot to unpack: great wordplay, combined with an attention-grabbing flow and a deep meaning. This is rap at its highest form. I mean, seriously, that “pets are mystic” and “pessimism” rhyme is ridiculous. Andre is feeling guilty for being depressed, despite being successful and wealthy. This verse serves as yet another reminder that money, success, and stature are no cure for emotional problems.
Despite my enjoyment of James’s voice, the meaning in his lyrics, and the high production quality, I began to realize something was missing as I got to the latter portion of the album: variety. Outside of “Tell Them” and “Where’s the Catch?” just about every song is a slow ballad. For the most part, this album has one gear. If you like to listen to several slow songs in succession, then this project is for you. Personally, I would have liked for James to experiment with more uptempo production and flows.
“Tell Them,” another Metro Boomin-assisted bop, provides a tantalizing taste of what could have been. It has the fastest-paced instrumental on the album, and James sounds great on it. I wished he’d made a few more songs like that one.
James closes the album with “Lullaby for My Insomniac.” At first, I was underwhelmed. After a couple more listens though, the song started to click. It puts me to sleep, but not because it’s boring. It’s incredibly relaxing, even compared to the other mellow songs on the album. Every time I listen to it, I start to feel sleepy, no matter where I am or what time of day it is. I can’t remember any other song that has had such a strong effect on me. In an Apple Music interview, he said “This is just me trying to calm the waters so you can drift off.” Well done, James. You made the musical version of a sleeping pill.
As a whole, Assume Form is a mixed bag. James Blake combines his wonderful voice with emotional lyrics and quality production. Every featured artist performs well, and contributes to some of the strongest songs the album has to offer. However, James could have been more adventurous, especially with his solo songs. At the very least, however, he is undeniably authentic and honest, qualities that should never be under-appreciated.
Favorite tracks: “Assume Form,” “Mile High,” “Tell Them,” “Barefoot In the Park,” “Where’s the Catch?,” “Lullaby for My Insomniac”
Least favorite: “Into the Red,” “Don’t Miss It”
Album Rating: 7/10
Album Review By: Joshua Valdez