James Blake is one of the most unusual and seemingly contradictory artists to arise in the past decade: an electronic-music auteur whose music is filled of all kinds of odd noises, but he’s also a balladeer with a spine-tingling voice, raised on Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Most unusually of all, he’s probably best known as a hip-hop collaborator, having worked with Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Travis Scott and other A-list rappers. To listen to his albums, you’d never imagine him as a hip-hop go-to vocalist, but he even won the 2019 Grammy for Best Rap Performance for “King’s Dead,” his collaboration with Lamar, Future and Jay Rock.
Blake is a prolific artist and his discography is peppered with one-off singles, EPs and collaborations, but his albums are more deliberate and studied in their experimentalism: Alluring but often challenging, his sumptuous melodies are tempered and tampered with otherworldly electronic bleeps and blurps or forays into odd vocal registers. No matter how beautiful his music gets, there’s always an element of disruption or disturbance to prevent the listener from getting too comfortable.
On that note, “Friends Who Break Your Heart,” Blake’s fifth and latest, is both his most approachable and disruptive album yet. Despite its Sam Smith-esque title and occasionally grim lyrics (sample: “I know this feeling all too well/ Of being alive at your own funeral”), it’s less maudlin than his previous two and also features his sunniest melodies. This may be due in part to the presence of songsmiths like SZA, Starrah, Ali Tamposi, Rick Nowels and Take a Daytrip (all of whom weigh in on a song or two), and Blake’s real-life partner Jameela Jamil cowrote and coproduced several songs. But although the sunnier moments might go on for a bit longer, it’s very much a James Blake album and there’s no shortage of disruption.
“Lost Angel Nights” is a celestial ballad with gorgeous stacked harmonies whose unusually conventional, almost Christmas carol-like melody is offset by synth blurps and a trippy breakdown; “Frozen” is a bizarre, deep-space collaboration with rappers JID and SwaVay; and throughout there are plenty of the, audio squiggles, warps, loops, bloops and Bach-via-Phillip Glass-via-Daft Punk electronic patterns that pop up in all of his albums.
Yet SZA softens his angular edges on the beautiful “Coming Back”; the uncharacteristically sweet “Show Me” has a Frank Ocean-ic autotuned voice on the chorus; and “Say What You Will,” premiered on Blake’s “Solo Piano” tour late in 2019, not only highlights his most beautiful chorus to date but also probably the greatest showcase of his wildly versatile voice, with an upper-range-stretching falsetto vamp at the end. The album closes with the oddly triumphant “If I’m Insecure,” which features a skulking melody on the verses that bursts into the sunlight on the anthemic chorus, buttressed by church-like chords and choirly voices; on the final chorus they’re almost completely drowned out by an insistently blipping high-pitched synth sound.
“Friends That Break Your Heart” is Blake’s best and most refined album to date, one that finds him further down the several paths he’s somehow simultaneously following: more conventional and more disruptive, prettier and more disturbing, all at the same time.