Hit the jump for the arguments…
An Argument For James Blake
James Blake can come across as a kind of an asshole. It’s pretty clear from some of his interviews since hitting the indie mainstream that he’s the most severe kind of music snob: pretentious, contemptful and talented. And that last one is important and sort of undeniable at this point. He is very, very talented.
James Blake is the kind of artist who has a very clear idea of what he wants to do. It’s not like he just one day picked up a keyboard and drum machine and started creating this shit – he’s among the artists that really think about what kind of music they’re making and how it’s contextualized as a genre and an artform. In his case, he decided to reinterpret dubstep. Did I mention he’s pretentious?
With that in mind, when it comes to understanding why James Blake is so great, it really helps to know what dubstep actually is. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just the womp womp womp wub wub wub woo bass explosion that you hear all over the place these days. I’m not going to bore you with the progression from garage and 2-step to jungle to dubstep, but basically know that Blake, throughout his pretty short-yet-diverse career, has made a name for himself by stripping down the genre to its core elements, then rebuilding the whole thing to fit his own aesthetic. It’s been extraordinarily interesting to watch.
Now, I completely understand that it’s preposterous to assume that someone doing something somewhat interesting with the musical context of a genre automatically makes good music. It doesn’t. But he’s doing this interesting stuff while making some really great songs along the way. It’s nearly impossible to hear “CMYK” and not bob your head, or listen to “I Never Learnt To Share” and not get caught up in that tortured buildup and catharsis.
It’s true that occasionally he may end up coming off as static and unexciting when the icy, spacious minimalism he tries to create fails to retain attention. But when he does make it work? The results are stunning. Couple that with his intellectualizing approach to music and you’ve got an artist that I will always be very excited to hear where he takes things next.
An Argument Against James Blake
Every now and then, James Blake strikes a seriously great melody. Then he stretches that melody out over a canvas and paints half of the background with little blips, challenging drum patterns, and a touch of decorative instrumentation. He leaves the other half empty, because he’s profound… in the way that someone with a camera who just learned the meaning of “negative space” is profound.
There may be a rich history that explains how Blake chose his drum patterns and overall timing, but really, it’s counterintuitive. especially when paired with his emotive but frail crooning. Simply put, it doesn’t sound good. I applaud the young London producer for trying new things, but since music is all about taste, let’s think about it in terms of food. James Blake is not the guy that created barbeque sauce. He’s the guy that took barbeque sauce, researched all the ingredients, and mixed them in different ratios to make something new that tastes nothing like barbeque sauce. While that is an interesting concept and displays a deep knowledge of the sauce, it definitely does not taste as good.
When it comes down to it, James Blake probably has a great knowledge of music and is a very talented artist, but that is not why he’s so popular. He’s popular because people (let’s call them music snobs) started throwing around words like “prodigy” and “wunderkind.” There is no turning back from words like that. The fact that his music can be difficult to “get,” is like offerring people a challenge to “figure it out” instead of dismissing it based on the fact that, on first listen, most people probably find it pretty unappealing. Suddenly, if you don’t get the genius of James Blake, you’re at risk of losing credibility.
It’s good to be challenged. The ocean of music we have today would be a stagnant swamp if the tides didn’t roll in and out, constantly stirring up change. James Blake has taken an intellectual approach to creating music–he’s chosen to challenge the norm and challenge the listener. Unfortunately, being challenging doesn’t necessarily mean being good. I can’t even write about his music without yawning and feeling bored to death. I guess I’m just not intellectual enough. Thumbs down. *Fart noises*