James Blake's arrival in the early 2010s was exciting, in no small part because no one sounded quite like him. His collision of ghostly, dubstep-informed production and quiveringly sad piano balladry should have been jarring and awkward, but it worked so well it catapulted Blake into near-iconic status. His cold and aching mumble became something of a genre unto itself, and his personal fingerprints began appearing on albums by experimental electronic artists, indie acts, and stadium-level stars like Beyoncé and Kanye West. Fourth album Assume Form finds Blake shedding much of his older self, leaving behind distant melancholy and spacious production and offering his most emotionally open, hopeful, and at times almost cheerful work. Blake's work with rap superstars has grown over the course of his career, notably collaborating with Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott multiple times in 2018. Assume Form frontloads its track listing with songs that borrow from radio rap trends and feature guest spots from bigger names in rap and pop. Scott lends verses to the trappy "Mile High," and Metro Boomin' co-produces both this song and "Tell Them," adding his signature eerie glow to both. Legendary emcee Andre 3000 shows up early on in the scattered "Where's the Catch?" dropping a self-described "heady" verse over the song's steady thump and piano loops. Elsewhere, Blake duets with Spanish vocalist Rosalia and falsetto crooner Moses Sumney. While Blake is no stranger to collaboration (having hosted friends like RZA and Bon Iver on previous albums), the guest spots on Assume Form add to the album's extroverted character. The isolation that sat at the core of his earliest work seems completely gone. Even on subtler songs where Blake reflects on loneliness and pain caused by mistakes, he sounds open-hearted and even optimistic. Themes of love, longing, and forgiveness come up over and over again, whether he's eagerly chasing a crush from New York to L.A. on the dreamy-eyed "I'll Come Too," or standing blissfully awestruck at the brilliance of true love on "Can't Believe the Way We Flow." Even the darkly introspective "Don't Miss It" sounds delivered with a wistful grin rather than the defeated sigh that accompanied much of Blake's earlier work. Romantic, elated, and verbose for his standards, Assume Form sees James Blake leaving the eternal winter that characterized his work before, stepping out into a blooming spring with newfound purpose. In some ways it's hard not to miss that trademark ache and downcast minimalism, but these 12 songs represent artistic development and a strike at emotional vulnerability from a talent who could have tread well-known territory indefinitely. At times, the changes feel experimental and uneven, but when they connect, the shifting perspectives of Assume Form are refreshing.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas