Prolific producer and singer-songwriter moves in an exciting new direction
About 10 years ago, James Blake made dubstep sexy. In an era when electronic music was populated by Skrillexes and Flux Pavilions, Blake saw an opportunity to manufacture an entirely new sound. “It really surprises me that people in this day and age still write such busy music and fill up every space with layer upon layer of sound,” said Blake for a 2011 Telegraph article. “It’s like musical landfill.”
The London-born singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist refused to stick to conventions, taking the normally full-bodied sound of dubstep music and transforming it into something entirely his own. Since then, Blake has further refined his sound. Collaborations with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Travis Scott have led to the sounds on records like The Colour of Everything (2016) and Assume Form (2019), where Blake stirs in notes of hip-hop, R&B and soul to his musical batter.
2020’s Before EP marks a shift towards a more lo-fi sound for Blake, albeit one that incorporates those same elements of electronica, hip-hop, R&B and soul into a psychedelic stew of glitchy beats. There’s a certain clunkiness or graininess to the project that evokes a feeling of rawness. But while there are times when that rawness borders on abrasiveness, for the most part, Before EP is a compelling exploration into his newest sonic fixations.
The EP opens with Blake’s trademark gentle falsetto on the computer-addled hip-hop ballad “I Keep Calling.” A deep sub bass rattles chest cavities, while some hip-hop percussion injects energy into the track and distorted vocals are snipped and clipped into the tune’s main riff. It sounds a bit muddled, perhaps intentionally so, with Blake’s lyrics centering around an unanswered call to a lover. The track’s dissonant notes and muddled production style create the feeling that the recipient of that call is distant, an apparition of a past relationship.
Titular track “Before” maintains that clouded feel. The sub bass, percussion and synths have a muted effect, encircling Blake’s feathery falsetto in a layer of sonic ooze. Blake’s vocals are the main attraction here, as he musters some truly ghastly vocal harmonies, frequently deviating from the key of the tune to throw the listener off. “I must be in pain ’cause I’ve never needed anyone before,” he croons, struggling to adjust to a strong yet unfamiliar yearning. The track’s outro is a representation of that apprehension, as creeping strings, a gritty bass and hollow synthesizers battle for the mix’s soul.
That ending is immediately contrasted by the mellow offerings of “Do You Ever,” which sees Blake weave in some elements of jazz and soul. Don’t be mistaken, it’s still got that James Blake feel, with a glitched out gliding piano forming the song’s central riff while warm synthesizers wash over it, but the chords and vocal harmonies here are distinctly jazzy. Following suit with previous tracks, Blake’s production on “Do You Ever” creates a certain hollowness that’s mirrored by lyrics about not being seen or heard.
Blake closes out the short EP with “Summer of Now,” an emotional and soulful offering that takes some influences from gospel music. The song’s intro is undoubtedly choral, with Blake’s ephemeral vocals flying above rich organ-like synths, but the rest of the song is experimental to say the least. About a minute in, a muted driving beat enters, and the synths and vocals adopt a strange wavering effect, contrasting the smoothness and grace of the gospel introduction. The track has shades of Blake collaborator Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. Blake’s oddly distorted vocals pierce through an arrangement of regal strings and deep synths, pairing abrasive and clean elements together much like Justin Vernon does on the Bon Iver project.
While Before EP doesn’t have the same swagger or immersive power of some of Blake’s earlier work, it’s certainly a worthy addition to his catalogue. The sounds on the project are often novel and exciting, offering a window into the mind of a prolific and innovative producer. The lo-fi elements of the project don’t always hit, occasionally coming off clunky or messy, but they often work alongside Blake’s despondent lyricism. It’s that combination of originality, creativity and instrumental-lyrical cohesion that make Before EP an enticing installment to Blake’s discography.