Hall Of Fame Hall Of Fame: James Blake, ‘James Blake’

This trailblazer of a debut album from 2011 kickstarted a sound that went on to dominate pop music in the following years. Before long, Beyoncé, Kendrick and Frank were picking up the phone…

The true legacy of an album can be judged by the amount of poor man’s rip-offs that followed desperately in its wake. As the well-documented saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

When James Blake’s self-titled album came out at the start of 2011, following a series of hype-building early singles and EPs, it pioneered a new hushed, intimate form of dubstep – often, and somewhat problematically, labelled ‘blubstep’ – that took a hold to become the signature sound of alternative pop production in the decade that followed.

Around the time of the album’s release, Blake highlighted the trailblazing nature of The xx’s debut album ‘xx’, released two years prior to his own debut - an album that made intimacy and minimalism cool again and emboldened Blake himself to present his icy productions to the world. While the influence of that album is undisputed, it was ‘James Blake’, however, that signalled a shift of the sound into the true mainstream.

On that debut record, the sample-heavy dubstep of the producer’s early EPs gave way to the first traditional songs of his career. Even today, when the heavily manipulated voice on opening track ‘Unluck’ gives way to ‘The Wilhelm Scream’’s stunning, soulful vocal, it’s a goosebump moment and a shock to the system; no-one believed that THAT voice could come from the dubstep knob-twiddler and blurry face on the album’s iconic cover.

The Facts

Released: 4th February 2011

Key tracks
: ‘Limit To Your Love’, ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, ‘I Never Learned To Share’

Tell your mates
: ‘James Blake’ gave the producer some famous admirers. Madonna said his music was “the kind of thing that makes me jealous”, while Kanye West – in the third person, of course – called him “Kanye’s favourite artist”.

The album’s greatest triumph is in its seamless blending of cutting-edge dubstep production and more traditional singer-songwriter tropes: something that was replicated over and over by others across the 2010s, and can especially be felt in the music of Billie Eilish, whose ‘When The Party’s Over’ Blake reinterpreted on his 2020 ‘Covers’ EP. Despite its frosty production and cool exterior, his debut’s most successful song is a cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’, while the deluxe edition features a notorious, stunning piano version of Joni Mitchell classic ‘A Case Of You’.

Alongside a host of people aiming to replicate Blake’s unique sound, some of the world’s biggest pop stars came to the producer himself to add a touch of his signature magic to their albums in the years that followed. Across the second half of the 2010s, he worked on Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’, Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, Travis Scott’s ‘Astroworld’ and more of the biggest albums around. Alongside a solo career that continued to blossom, Blake became the go-to guy for cutting edge pop and rap, all stemming from the trail that he blazed on his debut.

By the end of the decade, the musician had moved far beyond the icy textures and shyness of ‘James Blake’ – 2019 album ‘Assume Form’ saw him embracing full-on, loved-up balladry – but the legacy of his debut album still casts a long shadow. This was the template of the 2010s in one perfect nugget.

As featured in the October 2021 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.

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