“I know this sounds weird, but this album was easy to make,” says artist, producer and DJ James Blake about his sixth studio album Playing Robots Into Heaven, out today (Sept. 8). “It’s like I’m picking up where I left off years ago.”
The album is indeed a return to Blake’s roots, back when he was the prodigious polymath of London’s dance scene in the late aughts and early ’10s. Known then for crafting music that amalgamated early dubstep, soul samples and snippets of his own eerie vibrato, Blake quickly ascended as an underground sensation. “That was probably the last time I was DJing in one place regularly,” says Blake, who soon enough was touring Europe.
All the while, he was honing his skills as a songwriter, looking to the greats like Joni Mitchell as a North Star for writing songs with clearer hooks and more conventional structures, but still in-keeping with his signature style. From his first album James Blake (2011) to his fifth Friends That Break Your Heart (2021), Blake slid further away from the avant-garde sound that he once made in his bedroom to songs that drew more inspiration from pop and rap music. His later records — accompanied by collaborations with Beyonce, Travis Scott and Frank Ocean — made Blake a more mainstream star.
With 2021’s Friends That Break Your Heart, Blake says that he reached “the pinnacle of my songwriting” on standout track “Say What You Will.” “Once I wrote that song I said to myself, ‘I’m done. I don’t have to do this anymore.’ I felt like I’d written a song that finally filtered my influences and created my own version of what an ideal song would be.” It was one of the last tracks written for the project, and one that allowed him the space to make Playing Robots Into Heaven as the atypical follow-up album it was shaping out to be.
Blake says much of Playing Robots was written at the same time as his last album. But at the start, the songs that would become the new album’s linchpins, like “Fall Back” and “Big Hammer,” were just “modular jams” he says — ideas he would mess around with when playing his impressive collection of synthesizers. “Because this wasn’t my main focus at the time, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever put any of it out. It felt like this was definitely a left turn,” he adds.
He credits his longtime partner — actress, host and musical collaborator Jameela Jamil — as one of the main reasons why he decided to take the more eclectic, dance-based works he was toying with more seriously. “When she came to my shows, she always would tell me her favorite moments were songs like ‘Voyeur’ [from 2013’s Overgrown] or ‘Stop What You’re Doing’ [a 2009 one-off],” he says, both of which veer more electronic. “She encouraged me to let loose a little, saying that a lot of my longtime fans might like to hear that side of me again.”
And yet, he was well aware that this so-called left turn — even if it is a return to what launched his career in the first place — could be jarring for his newer fans who discovered him from more recent hits like the Grammy-winning “King’s Dead” with Kendrick Lamar, Future and Jay Rock or “Forward” with Beyonce. “I don’t know when it became a risk for me [to make a dance record,] but I guess it is sort of a risk,” he says.
But more importantly, his new album allowed him to just have fun. “I spent so much time trying to learn how to write songs over the years, but here I didn’t need to do that,” he says. “I didn’t need to learn anything. I just went out and made music I knew would be cool in a club.”
One defining distinction of Playing Robots Into Heaven is the sparing deployment of Blake’s trademark voice, which is less of a focal point and more of an instrument for him to tinker with as a producer. He says that his “minimal approach to lyrics” and voice on the record is a part of the way the project is distinguished as a true dance music. “I think the way vocals are used in dance music is different from how they are used in pop, but the intersection of those styles is repetition,” he says. “The more cerebral the lyrics are, the further from dance music it gets. When you’re actually on the dance floor, you don’t want to have to unpack something. You want one refrain that feels good.”
Still, listeners can find profound lyrical moments in Playing Robots Into Heaven. Take “Loading,” the album’s second single, which repeats the phrase “wherever I go / I’m only as good as my mind / which is only good if you’re mine.” It’s then chopped and reassembled throughout the track, making it feel akin to a Buddhist meditation as much as it is a dance floor anthem.
For months, Blake has been testing his new material through a series of small club shows hosted in Los Angeles called CMYK (a call back to his 2011 track of the same name) at which Blake recreates the atmosphere of his early days — and sheds the stardom he has earned in the years since. “This album was mostly A&Red by the crowds at CMYK,” he says. “I really road tested this material.” It’s something he hasn’t done before, but a process he felt would befit his first true dance album in about a decade.
“When you’re part of a regular scene, it is very easy to visualize where and who you are making music for,” says Blake. “That’s what CMYK is about, bringing that spirit of dance floor from all of my influences back in the day to crowds now.”
“I don’t think the rules have changed that much when it comes to dance music,” he continues. “It’s pretty universal: what makes people move? That’s what I want to make.”