Here’s a funny story about James Blake: In 2014, Drake’s people called him up to use an old work-in-progress beat for a song. Blake refused and, when he was later told how much money he could have made had he approved the sample, he spat out his drink. The song was 0 to 100/The Catch Up, currently sitting at around 370 million plays on Spotify by the most-streamed artist in the history of the world. You’d wonder if Blake ever refused a collaboration like this again.
The track record would suggest not. Blake – London-born, classically trained in piano with a degree in popular music – made his name the old-fashioned way, by releasing music out of his bedroom and catching the ear of tastemakers at BBC Radio. His sound is a minimal, electronic exercise in patience; his pulsating beats and graceful falsetto informed some of the biggest pop sounds of the decade – Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Kenrick Lemar’s DAMN all benefited from his golden touch.
All the while, Blake was releasing a steady stream of critically acclaimed solo albums, his finest being 2016’s The Colour in Anything, though he wouldn’t receive a Grammy nomination for a solo album until 2019’s popular but overly serious Assume Form.
So to his fifth solo outing, Friends That Break Your Heart. With just three tracks boasting guest spots, it’s a breathy, sometimes more playful Blake than we’re used to. SwaVay – the Atlanta rapper about whom Blake tweeted “the amount of average music out there and [SwaVay] hasn’t blown up yet makes me not understand the world” – shines alongside JID on the giddy, horrorcore-infused Frozen. Meanwhile, Monica Martin’s appearance on Show Me is pure gospel-infused beauty, even if Blake somewhat overblows the chorus.
Say What You Will is a serious-sounding ode to remaining true to yourself despite the successes of other people. A bit rich from one of the world’s best-connected producers, but lyrics like “I might not make all those psychopaths proud/ At least I can see the faces of the smaller crowds” are a nod to his always-the-bridesmaid position at major award shows, where he’s had the most success as a producer of other people’s music. It perfectly fuses the best of Blake: self-serious with a sense of humour and a high note that would give Minnie Riperton the chills.
Though there are hints of levity, Blake remains a self-effacing lyricist, concerned with the complexities of inner worlds. The darkness is buoyed by some beautiful, melodic writing and spirited production on an album that, though perfectly serviceable, lacks the inventive spark of Blake’s best work.