No matter how much of a music fan you heard the name James Blake because of his collaborations with well-established and high-profile artists. For good reason—his feature repertoire is arguably one of the best in the business. From memorable verses on Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, to mesmerizing background vocals on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Blake has earned a reputation within the music industry as an extremely talented vocalist. So, we can only wonder: why haven’t his solo projects garnered nearly as much attention and acclaim as his features?
Blake seeks to answer this question on his new LP, Friends That Break Your Heart. Compared to his previous albums, in which Blake seemed to be trying to squeeze as many genres as he could into each record, Friends That Break Your Heart commits to the ambient pop sound that he teased on Blonde.
At its worst points, Friends That Break Your Heart can feel a bit redundant. There are certainly tracks on this album, namely “Show Me” and “If I’m Insecure,” that overstay their welcome and really fulfill the ‘ambient’ side of ‘ambient pop’. The emotional climax of the album comes in the 9th track, “Say What You Will,” and the remaining four tracks function as a denouement, albeit a dragging one.
At its best points, Friends That Break Your Heart feels like a long, cleansing session of meditation. As the title implies, Blake spends most of the record reflecting on lost and unsatisfying friendships. This is one of the most refreshing aspects of this album—aside from a couple of romantic detours, almost every song on this album is focused on losing entirely platonic friendships. While everyone can pour their heart out to a good breakup song, Blake is here to remind us that falling-outs with friends can be just as gut-wrenching, if not more.
Blake reveals a lot of his insecurities concerning friendships on the eponymous track, “Friends That Break Your Heart.” The bitterness and regret that he feels is palpable as he sings “I have haunted many photographs/In the background, in the fore.” Ironically, if this album demonstrates anything about James Blake, it’s that he no longer exists in the shadow or background of other artists. The tracklist certainly isn’t pressed for star power—SZA and JID both deliver impressive verses on their respective songs. However, Blake never lets his features overshadow him as he has in past songs like “Mile High” and “Where’s the Catch” from his last album. Ultimately, the greatest success of this album is that James Blake shows off his incredible singing chops. We’ve gotten sneak peeks of his talent in his work with Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, but this time, he gets the lead role. Hopefully, this becomes a staple of James Blake records, because the musical world would be all the better for it.
The production of this album also cannot be praised enough. The bouncy, watery synths that always served as a cornerstone of James Blake’s music are still present, but they set a mysterious tone that gives the listener an unshakable sense of anticipation throughout the duration of the record. Blake utilizes trap-style 808 drums during the more upbeat portions of the album, but he isn’t afraid to strip back and remove the drums entirely on ballads like “Funeral.” Every drum beat, chord change, and rhythm switch feels purposeful; James Blake fully grasps his vision.
Friends That Break Your Heart is a clean, accessible record that has a lot of genuine sentiment behind it, but is arguably more evocative in its instrumentation than thought-provoking in its lyrics. If you find yourself with some time to kick back and reflect, don’t be afraid to let this album kick back with you.
Photo Credit by Republic Records / Polydor Records / UMG Recordings
Merisotis is a Freshman in the College studying Political Economy.