With his quavering vocals and math-wiz electronic melodies, James Blake is a pretty unlikely candidate for a hip-hop go-to singer: His high, icy baritone is about as far from rap as one can get. But there he is, collaborating as a singer and co-composer on Jay-Z’s “4:44,” Jay Rock’s “Redemption,” Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and the “Black Panther” soundtrack, and there he was on the Grammy stage with Travis Scott.
Apart from a few grinding beats and flashes of R&B in his melodies, Blake’s own music bears few traces of hip-hop, and at the Fillmore Philadelphia on the chilly opening night of the tour supporting “Assume Form,” his fourth and most fractured album, maintained the glad-to-be-unhappy moodiness that’s been a hallmark of his career.
Usually the sound of crickets would unsettle any artist. But on his “Assume Form” set-starter, the drone of clacking insect paranoia and Satie-esque piano — a skeletal vibe usually found on his albums — gave the audience an easier entry way into his misery-loves-company lyricism and chilly musicality. From there, each song added an array of loud beeps and bloops — the bouncingly baroque “Life Round Here” and the whooping “Timeless” — while maintaining a stately and sweat-less serenity that would make Roxy Music proud. There were even moodier moments, such as the coolly emotive “Where’s the Catch?,” where Blake and his musicians sounded like they were The Weeknd playing Roxy’s lush 1982 classic “Avalon.”
That layered R&B-ish lover man feel suited the compressed blues of “Limit to Your Love” and the swipe-left sound FX-filled soul of “Love Me in Whatever Way” elegantly. Their vibrating bass tones and soft, playful rhythms allowed Blake’s withdrawn vibrato an opportunity to shine shell. Blake even brings his dad — James Litherland, guitarist and a founding member of the ‘70s prog-rock band Colosseum — into the mix, by playing his collaboration with his father, “The Wilhelm Scream,” at set’s end.
Yet maybe all the hip-hop collaborations have rubbed off on Blake after all: In this loud, live setting, Blake’s plaintive vocals and piano took on a new-found forcefulness.