album review

James Blake, Future, and the Power of Voice

Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images/FilmMagic

It takes more than deep breaths and steady pitch to be a great singer. Karaoke and open-mic nights brim with vocalists who have a strong handle on both, and they’re a marvel to watch. But the voices that make it into the national consciousness are vehicles for peculiar tones and personalities. The impactful vocalists of this decade are increasingly the least traditional ones. Drake’s low, workmanlike rasp can relay resignation (“God’s Plan,” “Too Much”) or longing (“Take Care,” “Company”). XXXTentacion sounded young, angry, and scarred and resonated powerfully among people who feel the same. Two of music’s most singular voices released new albums this month. Winsome British singer-producer James Blake, who got his start making smart, dubstep-adjacent dance music a decade ago and has inched closer to renown as a traditional singer-songwriter ever since, released Assume Form, his most direct and upbeat collection to date. Future, the gravelly Atlanta crooner in the middle of an impressive hot streak, proves his mettle once more with The WIZRD.

James Blake’s career trajectory feels like a coup. The jump from the thoughtful beat construction of early EPs like CMYK and Klavierwerke to the dizzying vocal manipulation and baroque arrangements of his 2011 self-titled debut album is astounding, and the mainstream traction it garnered the artist is still surprising because his interests ran so counter to pop music’s never-ending pursuit of relatability. Blake seemed inscrutable, unknowable, and impossibly sad in songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “I Never Learnt to Share.” His voice was disembodied and angelic; his production warped, layered, and digitized it to abstraction. The result was a little inviting and a little chilly, like a robot glee club singing church hymns. Blake’s obfuscations were deliberate. “If I try to write to-the-point like Laura Marling, it’s too much exposure,” he once told Dazed. Listeners who couldn’t crack the lyrics latched onto the lonesome quality in the tone of his voice and labeled him a sad sack, an accusation he resists so much that his career seems like a concerted effort at quieting it. He lives in Los Angeles now. He’s in a relationship and happy to gush about it. He’s an in-demand beat-maker for A-list pop and rap stars. Assume Form is an exercise in dropping Blake’s aloof veneer, in writing songs that tell stories, where they preferred to serve puzzles.

Assume Form’s title track is a mission statement: “I will assume form / I’ll be out of my head this time / I will be touchable by her / I will be reachable.” Blake’s writing more directly now. His ace concern is how to be a more attentive lover. The album’s instincts are noble, but the execution isn’t always as strong as the convictions. The melodies and arrangements are drippy in ways that work both for and against Blake. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” makes good use of a soul sample and a bit of melody nicked from John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” “Tell Them,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and “Where’s the Catch?” showcase Blake’s utility as a collaborator, as he matches excellent performances from Moses Sumney, Rosalia, and André 3000. Elsewhere, Assume Form feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between lovers in public. “I’ll Come Too” is giddy boyfriend pillow talk that imagines what doo-wop might sound like with trap drums. (Spoiler: cheesy.) “Power On” is about ditching friends for more alone time. “Lullaby for My Insomniac” is Blake quite literally singing his significant other to sleep. It’s a bit cloying and intense, all wedding vows and no reception. It’s possible to write about coupling without grating — Kacey Musgraves’s “Late to the Party” and “Die Fun” come to mind — but James Blake’s latest shares so much that its observations can seem mundane.

Future’s kingdom is perched on relatable oversharing. His songs unfold like social-media posts, curt and seemingly cast-off dispatches about whatever worry he’s enduring at the time. They’re intense because Future’s past is knotty. He grew up rapping and trapping, enjoying minor notoriety as a satellite member of Atlanta’s legendary Dungeon Family but struggling to shine as a solo artist until a guest spot on the 2011 trap hit “Racks” introduced him to a national audience, nearly ten years into his career. Fame didn’t bring Future peace; his ascent dovetailed with dalliances with prescription drugs and sketchy public disagreements with the mothers of his children. You never know what you’re in for when you press play on a new release. You might get a passive-aggressive breakup song (“Throw Away,” “My Collection”). You might get encouraging words about overcoming insurmountable odds and appreciating everyone who got you through them (“Blood, Sweat, Tears,” “Lie to Me”). The constant is Future’s voice, a pitted, weathered instrument that makes the most out of a little bit of pitch correction and a world of pain and triumph.

The WIZRD is a spiritual successor to FUTURE and HNDRXX. Released a week apart two winters ago, FUTURE and HNDRXX presented the rapper as a fighter and a lover. The former’s hard knocks and sneering boasts balanced the latter’s hunger for a partner to share a life with. (FUTURE / HNDRXX was daring mythmaking. It’s not often that a guy who spends an hour detailing how he plans to shoot you spends another one showering you in gifts and compliments.) The WIZRD balances FUTURE’s gruff kingpin talk and HNDRXX’s yearning. It never drags because most of the songs are done by minute three, and because Future is a magician when it comes to making words sound cool. “Overdose” gets away with rhyming “drugs” with “drugs” eight times in a row thanks to the performer’s unbridled energy. “F&N” makes a case for Future as a legitimately great rhymer. (“Homicide for the brodie / You beat a body, get a Rollie / We don’t entertain no police / I’m certified with my dodie.”) “Temptation” celebrates wealth; “Promise U That” longs to share it with the right woman. WIZRD dazzles thanks to harrowing vocals, raw emotion, and a murderers’ row of great southern beat-makers. There are guests, but they’re afterthoughts. Future is the total package. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole get credit for being sharper lyricists, and Drake gets more steam from his pop smarts, but when we revisit the rappers of this decade who could make us cry one minute and beat our chests the next, Future will be in the conversation.

Assume Form and The WIZRD are both vehicles for unorthodox singers to show their wares. They’re coping exercises, too, attempts to reckon with life in a fame machine neither artist expected to catch up with them. James Blake is dealing by writing exclusively to and for the person who matters to him the most. As such, Assume Form often feels like turning up to a dinner party with a couple that whiles away the evening making no secret of the fact that they can’t wait to get home and be alone. It’s charming if you’re caught up in earth-shattering love and seeing the image of the object of your affection in every aspect of the living world outside. It’s soupy and a little goofy if you’re not. Blake’s still growing as a writer. Future hit a sweet spot on the road to DS2 and hasn’t stopped crushing homers since.

James Blake, Future, and the Power of Voice