Minimalism in Music: James Blake

Recently, I joined a community centered on minimalism. While I don’t consider myself a minimalist, I’ve been raised with the mentality that materialism really isn’t necessary. You really don’t need that extra stuff. Stuff is exactly that and you can’t take it with you when the time comes to leave this place. I got to thinking (a dangerous hobby of mine) and I started to think about the minimalist mentality and music. Do the two mix? If so, where and how? I haven’t seen any outspoken minimalist artists, but in a way it wouldn’t be fitting for a minimalist to be so outspoken about their choices. While they may not be minimalistic themselves they perfectly convey their artistry and openness with only what they need or with what they have at their disposal. After all, sometimes what’s considered “bare bones” often has a lot to say.

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71fZRsuz41L._SY355_[1] James Blake

United Kingdom’s James Blake, in hindsight, is a bit of an oddity despite not being that “outside of the box” the Electronic genre. Fusing Soul, R&B, Dance, Trip Hop and Dubstep into his work, on paper you’d expect his work to be loud, groovy and all over the place like many acts in the genre. Blake has even been categorized by many as “Post-Dubstep” a genre that takes the sporadic and structure less beats of Dubstep and turn them into more intricate ballads. Unlike his contemporaries like Jamie xx who make use of this for more upbeat music, Blake takes the intensity and uses it for a more broody, quiet and soulful sound. There isn’t a moment where Blake doesn’t sound sincere in what he’s singing and there’s a reason for that. Blake has been outspoken about his struggles with depression. In a way, being the change he wants to see in how people handle it. Depression for him stifles his creative process and he has chosen to stay back from drugs as a means of a “coping mechanism”. In a way, this is very prevalent in his music.

As stated already, not a single word doesn’t sound sincere. In a way, it’s almost as if he’s singing for himself and his own well-being and if anyone enjoys and connects with it then that’s a bonus. Blake takes the intense beats of Dubstep and draws them out to make these long and eerie soundscapes. Mix that with is soulful voice and quiet production and you get these moody textures of sound that just sway and tug on the emotional strings, especially with late night listens. What’s also important to note is how he’s achieving this sound. He almost always works on his own (though he has worked with thematically similar artists like Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, Brian Eno and Vince Staples) and almost always sticks to dubbed voice overs, drawn out and intense synthesizers and/or piano. If he does go out and step away from or adds to his synths and piano it’s usually as simple as a guitar or a drum machine here and there. In the opener to the track “Overgrown” he quietly uses trickles of sound to kind of build you up for the ride ahead and the rather simple set up that brings a lot of heaviness tied with it. Its almost nauseous how heavy some of his tracks can be.

Despite the simplicity, he never gets stale or boring. He’s very consistent and keeps you guessing. Especially on his sophomore album “Overgrown”. Depending on the track spinning, he either uses his voice to convey a despondent message (Radio Silence) or to create these emotionally empty moods (If The Car Moves Beside You Moves Ahead). In tracks like “Digital Lion” Blake slowly unravels this anxious and emotionally intense beat and sound that just keeps going and going and going. I almost feel like there’s no end in sight every time I listen to it. The production (like many tracks of his) is very quiet which adds more of a somber feel and sometimes even sinister like a demon is wrapped around his shoulders or something. Let’s not forget to mention his artistic approach in his artwork. Look at any album cover of his and you automatically get the emotions behind his work, even if it’s as simple as water-color paintings and still photographs in a leather vest in the snow.

No matter what. Whether in a room full of people or not, you’re always alone with James Blake.

Blake has grown more to the attention of the public eye as of recent, but I think he’s in a comfortable spot. He’s worked with Beyoncé and even the king himself Kendrick Lamar (he even toured with Kendrick before) in recent years and was one of the only white artists to be featured in the “Black Panther” soundtrack and despite all of this he’s in this comfortable bubble where people recognize him but he could still get his groceries in a Target if he’d like. In short, I get the impression that he can make his living and still live comfortably. Blake isn’t the most original artist to date, especially in the genre, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing or even a necessity . I believe that the notion something has to be completely original to be good is arbitrary and problematic. Music can be good even if you can pick out what may have inspired an artist and sometimes what really sells an artist for me is the person they are rather than the “originality”. With that being said its good to differentiate yourself and James Blake, while taking inspiration from his father and his contemporaries, is very much “James Blake” and I have yet to find anyone that even comes close to his style and artistry. He’s very much his own thing and that alone is worth a listen.

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Thank you for reading and may God bless you!

-G

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