In his acclaimed solo career, James Blake has built himself a reputation for melancholy and isolation, beautifully rendered in the experimental brushstrokes of post-dubstep electronic music. But over the years, the Englishman’s proved himself an in-demand producer and collaborator, especially among rap’s A-list—he’s worked with Jay-Z, André 3000 and Kendrick Lamar, just to name a few. (And that’s not counting his unexpected appearance on Queen Bey’s Lemonade, which is the biggest co-sign a contemporary musician can hope for these days.)
Last week, Blake released his fourth studio album, the heavily anticipated and already widely praised Assume Form. To mark the occasion, we’ve compiled a list of his best hip hop collaborations, whether they be remixes, production work or Blake’s own tracks. Here they are, listed in order of release.
“Life Round Here” featuring Chance the Rapper
The one and only RZA was the lone guest on Blake’s 2013 breakthrough, Overgrown, but his wasn’t the most memorable rap feature of that era. Months after the album’s release, Blake enlisted Chance the Rapper for a remix of “Life Round Here.” The Chicagoan is a surprisingly great fit for the track, timing his yelping ad libs to the track’s quickening tempo and supplying haunting vocal harmonies to Blake’s ominous singing. His presence adds texture and oomph to the original, which could occasionally feel hollow, even arid.
“War Ready” by Vince Staples
As a producer, Blake shines when matched with artists versatile and confident enough to take on his manipulations of sound. Vince Staples is one of those artists. His 2016 Prima Donna EP featured two Blake productions: “Big Time” and “War Ready.” On the latter, Blake is practically a kid in a sandbox, chopping up an OutKast sample one second and laying down a swift, sinuous keyboard line the next. The ever-nimble Staples hopscotches around the soundscape, and the song’s over before you’ve even grasped its every moving part.
“Element” by Kendrick Lamar
The DAMN. song, which also credits Ricci Riera and Top Dawg Entertainment’s Sounwave as producers, initially had a jazzy vibe––but that all changed when Blake “came in at the last second,” Sounwave told the FADER in 2017. Just as Lamar and co finished mastering “Element,” the English beatmaker turned in a “crazy piano loop” that enhanced the underlying melody for Lamar’s swaggering flow. “We incorporated [Blake’s] keys with the original and it became what it is,” Sounwave said.
“Mile High” featuring Travis Scott, Metro Boomin
Assume Form single “Mile High” features trap superproducer Metro Boomin, but it’s not the clash of beatmaking titans you might have expected. Young Metro’s 808 patterns are sharp but understated, giving increasingly frequent Blake collaborator Travis Scott a beat to catch and toy with. Part of the song’s about sex—as Scott raps, “We just be mile high clubbin’ / I’m on a thousand miles runnin’”—but the track’s less a romp and more a frozen moment. Blake’s previous album The Colour of Anything was an exercise in silence and negative space, and the murmuring miasma of “Mile High” feels of a piece with that.
“Where’s the Catch?” featuring André 3000
Blake’s long-running love affair with OutKast’s work has seeped into his own music many times: He sampled a Big Boi song on Overgrown bonus track “Every Day I Ran,” and as mentioned above, sampled “ATLiens” on Vince Staples’ “War Ready.” Last year, he even played piano on one of two surprise Mother’s Day drops from André 3000, the song “Look Ma No Hands.”
But Assume Form standout “Where’s the Catch?” marks the first time he and Three Stacks have formally gotten on the same track together, and the results are staggering. André’s free-associative, “heavy ass” verse matches Blake’s paranoid energy; this song could both inspire a modern dance routine and electrify a sweaty rave.
Stream Assume Form here.