James Blake Proves that Less is More

A Review of James Blake's "The Colour In Anything"

There comes a point in a popstar’s career when dominating their respective genre is not enough. After years of success, these artists aim to create classifications of their own. Just this year alone, Rihanna, Kanye West, Beyoncé and Drake all released albums that attempted to reinforce, or finally assert themselves, as uncompromising, monolithic forces that defy categorization. It makes sense, then, why all of these artists have noted their admiration for James Blake, a musician who has a style that is wholly his own.

The Colour in Anything, Blake’s third album, continues the trend of being unmistakably Blake. His blend of crafting songs with an R&B and singer/songwriter edge backed by beats that reflect Blake’s London upbringing – with elements of dubstep, garage, and grime abound – come together to create music that is equally mechanical and sincere. On The Colour In AnythingBlake’s trademark minimalism is in full effect, as he manages to mine more out of three or four tracks than most modern electronic producers could with a dozen. Many songs feature prolonged segments of just Blake’s voice and a synth. This is made possible by Blake’s low-key technical mastery. He uses jazzy chords and complicated progressions as an undercurrent to the songs yet never makes a point of showing it off — everything is done to serve the song, not his ego.

That’s not to say there aren’t any surprises in The Colour In Anything, or that Blake is simply retreading old ground. At 17 songs and 76 minutes, this is a long album, but Blake makes sure there is enough variety to keep the listener engaged. The Colour In Anything incorporates many new production elements unseen in Blake’s past works. Sampling, for instance, which has mostly only been used in his instrumental work up until now, is prominent throughout the album. And the percussion has more of a classic, clean hip-hop feel this time around, a style Blake has previously acknowledged, yet not fully embraced. But whether it’s the trappy breakdown of “Points” or the steady house groove in “I Hope My Life,” Blake proves  that no matter how a song is decorated, his songwriting is unrivaled.

As an album that is a testament to Blake’s singularity, The Colour in Anything is ironically the most collaborative he’s ever been. Usually not wont to use co-songwriters or producers, the album features production assistance from megaproducer Rick Rubin, and fellow neo-soul auteur Frank Ocean contributes his songwriting chops (Blake, in turn, is offering songwriting assistance on Ocean’s long-awaited Channel Orange follow-up).“I Need A Forest Fire” is accompanied by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, whom Blake has collaborated with in the past, and the chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination of their voices once again creates a lush, melancholy atmosphere. While these artists’ presence isn’t felt overwhelmingly on the project, their contributions surely helped The Colour In Everything become the consistent album it is now. Blake’s soulful vocals are front-and-center on every track, and whether it’s pitchbended, looped, autotuned, or unmanipulated, his voice always carries immense power and emotion. 

The Colour In Anything comes hot off the heels of Blake being featured on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which has catapulted his otherwise steady climb to the mainstream. Whether planned or not, the timing of these coinciding releases is perfect, as this is an excellent primer for potential new fans of his work. It contains everything Blake has been acclaimed for up until this point, creating some of his most impressive work to date, while also containing new elements that will keep people waiting for his next releases. Blake has garnered a reputation of being one of the perennial #sadboys of the 2010s, a reputation he attempts to shirk on The Colour In Anything. While he continues with the trend of his songwriting containing a smidge of melancholy, there is a sense of hopefulness in the album. If there is a narrative thread on the The Colour In Anything, it’s of Blake finding himself. The opener “Radio Silence” starts with the lyric “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me” and closer “Meet You In The Maze” ends with claims of “it’s me that makes the peace in me” and “music can’t be everything”. The Colour In Anything solidifies Blake as one of the most vital musicians of this time, and no matter what comes next, this is an excellent bookend to the first act of his career.

Grade: A-