When James Blake entered the public eye with his self-titled debut album in 2011, he was a breath of fresh air for pop and R&B.
He melded elements of electronic with the two genres to create a lush and intriguing new sound. Topped with his soulful, angelic vocals, it made for some of the most striking pop music ever.
For me, each release following his first two albums saw less and less of the experimentation that made him so impressive in the first place. The quality was still high for the most part, but he lost much of the edge that drew me to him.
“Friends That Break Your Heart” is the culmination of that drift toward convention.
However, that’s not to say it's a bad album. In fact, it's intriguing to see James Blake making a more traditional pop/R&B album.
These collaborations come with mixed results.
SZA’s contribution on “Coming Back” is unremarkable, and the beat has a similar uninspired feel. Blake’s vocals end up being the standout of the track despite the SZA feature.
J.I.D. and SwaVay feature on “Frozen.” J.I.D.’s verse begins with robotic effects on his voice and is followed by a solid — if not overly impressive — lyrical verse. SwaVay attempts to do a verse from the perspective of a crazed Atlanta trapper with somewhat cringey results. Blake sings the hooks and bridges here, and they contrast with the rap verses decently well.
“Show Me” is a retrospective look at a relationship that didn't work between two people who’ve now changed for the better. This includes the final feature of the album, from Monica Martin as the female perspective, as she and Blake deliver a muted but heartfelt duet on the lullaby-like track.
The best songs on here are not those with vocal features, though. Blake’s solo ballads stand out among the tracks with other artists
The first two tracks, “Famous Last Words” and “Life Is Not The Same” are both beautiful, haunting tracks with minimal drums and futuristic sound effects, topped with Blake’s emotional and touching vocals.
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“...I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” mixes the ballad-like style with a more uptempo drum pattern and melody. It has an almost playful feel, coinciding with the happier theme of the song in contrast with the rest of the album.
“Foot Forward,” produced by Metro Boomin, doesn’t feel like something meant for Blake. He does well enough on the piano-looped instrumental, paralleling it with lyrical repetition with themes of apathy and acceptance of loss, though it has an almost bitter tinge to me.
Though every song features personal and emotional accounts from Blake’s perspective, the lyrics never delve very deep into their themes.
“Say What You Will” deviates from the heavy vocal focus on the album. Blake opts for a less dynamic vocal performance in its first half, in exchange for a deeply personal lyrical exploration of his identity and insecurity. The second half sees arguably the most impressive vocals on the album, as Blake delivers a beautiful falsetto with the words “Say what you will,” echoing through the listeners ears.
To conclude the album, Blake gives us “Friends That Break Your Heart” and “If I’m Insecure.” The two tracks are sincere, sentimental and feel like natural conclusions to the album, though lacking in anything memorable from vocal performance or production.
If nothing else, James Blake’s foray into the conventional treads the line between the experimental and normalcy. It’s a thoroughly pleasing and comforting auditory and emotional experience, if not being unremarkable and stifled at times.