Review: ‘Before’ EP – James Blake

On James Blake’s latest, the four track Before EP, his emotive ballads collide with dancefloor ready production, harking back to his early days as an underground electronic DJ in London.With four studio albums to his name and a list of collaborations including Kanye West, Beyoncé, Bon Iver and Travis Scott, the new tracks appear at a time when Blake’s sought-after production is finally finding its way into the American mainstream.

On 2019’s Assume Form, Blake moved further into the realm of ballads, building on the emotive song-writing of earlier releases such as The Colour in Anything. The permeation of falling in love and breaking up in his lyrical content has fueled a “sadboy” labelling of the LA based artist. One that he is trying to shake on Before, with Blake stating that he is “finally having confidence to put [his] own voice on dancefloor rhythms”.

The Before EP takes Blake back to his DJing roots, combining his characteristic falsetto phrases with club-ready compositions. The EP is filled with well-established two-step drum patterns and soaring basslines mirroring his early releases on imprints such as R&S Records and Hemlock Recordings. In a world without nightlife, the latest record appears as a vision of nostalgia for dark and dingy club-nights, such as the early dubstep night “Bass Society” Blake hosted in London featuring artists such as Skream and Benga. The EP’s opener, “I Keep Calling,” sets the tone of Blake’s directive. Complete with pitched up vocal samples reminiscent of his 2010’s Kelis-infused banger “CMYK“—named Gilles Peterson’s track of year 2010. Opening with Blake’s lilting falsetto before dropping in like a Four Tet track, an unmistakable techno two-step leading the charge, alongside low pass filters and a xylophonic synth melody. The track builds to an overpowering crescendo that wouldn’t sound out of place as a set-finisher or euphoric moment of reflection in the middle of a sweaty basement venue.

The EP’s eponymous track “Before” positions Blake’s lyrics at the fore when he sings;“I must be in pain ‘cos I’ve never needed anyone before / well nothing’s in vain ‘cos I’ve never had it as good before.” The leading lyrical phrase “You move me naturally” pulsates throughout the track before thumping drums move in, followed by a Burial-
style sub bass that is punctuated by horror-film strings creating an atmospheric final section of the track.”Do You Ever” is perhaps the most accomplished track on the EP. Opening with rising and falling Rhodes-style keys that soar like a lark above the walking-pace drum pattern. The song’s lyrics are reminiscent of earlier Blake ballads when he sings:

Do you ever think about me / really if you’re honest with me / I’d like to sit next to you.”

A subterranean synth melody descends, adding a further texture to the production, while the percussion puffs along like a stream train. The crawling bassline harks back to his collaboration with Chance the Rapper on “Life Round Here” and the Andre
-featured “Where’s the Catch?” The conclusion of the track introduces a reflective string section alongside Blake’s falsetto vocals, bringing the track to an opulent close. The EP’s final track, “Summer of Now,” can be read as a simple reflection on a summer lost in the halcyon days of old, when Blake sings: “I’m not the summer of all my worries, and I’m not the summer of yours / I’m not the summer of 2015, but I can be the summer of now.” A sentiment that will not be lost on his listeners; it is a feeling we can all relate to after the absent summer of 2020. As Boiler Room continue a summer of streams from the globe’s top selectors, it was James Blake’s turn to spin the decks for the first time since 2010. And he did not disappoint, leading us through a valley of musical selections, one particular highlight being the seamless mix of Gucci Mane’s “Birthday Party” into Randomer classic “Bring.”

Before EP adds another string to an already illustrious bow for James Blake. In a world devoid of clubs and festivals, we are reminded of those special moments found only in music’s grassroots underbelly. Late night music made for shadows and streetlights; the twinkle of a stranger’s eye from the across the dancehall.

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