An Incomplete History of James Blake

From dorm-room dubstep producer to pop prodigy.

2002 The foundations for "dubstep" begin to be laid in South London club FWD>> (a bass-music hub that will also give grime a stage in the mid-'00s) and via Hyperdub label boss Kode9's affiliated show on East London pirate radio station Rinse FM.

MAY 2005 Pitchfork launches a "Month in Grime/Dubstep" column, bringing the still-rapidly evolving genre into the critical mainstream.

2006 James Blake's musician father, James Litherland, releases an album (4th Estate) containing the yacht-rocking song "Where to Turn," a minimalist reinterpretation of which will become his son's standout 2011 single "The Wilhelm Scream."

JANUARY 2007 Burial's self-titled Hyperdub debut is named 2006's Album of the Year by influential British obscurantist mag The Wire, cementing the record's status as dubstep's first great album. (Burial's follow-up, Untrue, will by most accounts be the genre's second great long-form work.)

JULY 2009 Blake releases his debut EP, Air & Lack Thereof, before beginning his final year at Goldsmiths University of London. Nominally dubstep, the title track is spacious even by that genre's standards, relying more on its smeared vocal hooks than on rhythm or low-end.

2009–10 Dubstep starts infiltrating the mainstream (and vice versa) enough so that a certain, too-swaggering strain of the stuff, characterized by chintzy "ominous" signifiers and an over-reliance on the "bass wobble," begins to be derided as "bro-step." Simultaneously, on the other end of the spectrum, people are looking to less aggro, more atmospheric or experimental takes on the genre: This stuff will get the unfortunately functional tag of "post-dubstep."

MAY 31, 2010 Now graduated, Blake returns with follow-up EP CMYK, a popping, evaporating bit of R&B vocal splicing that quickly becomes a favorite of DJs and critics alike, gaining BBC airplay and appearing on year-end lists including Pitchfork's Top 50 albums and Top 100 tracks of 2010.

SEPTEMBER 2010 BBC DJ Zane Lowe declares Blake's reworking of Feist's "Limit to Your Love"—on which Blake sings soulful and up-front in the mix over, alternately, pounding piano and gutted bass hum—the "Hottest Record in the World."

JANUARY 2011 Blake places second in the BBC's "Sound of 2011" poll, which spotlights the coming year's most promising pop musicians.

FEBRUARY 8, 2011 Blake releases his self-titled full-length debut, an album which recasts him as no longer an electronic producer so much as a singularly spectral singer/songwriter. He largely abandons the electronic micro-genre that first earned him acclaim in favor of a sort of hollowed-out piano balladry—albeit one that still makes great use of dubstep's predilection for low frequencies, negative spaces, and scrambled vocals (only this time those vocals aren't samples as often as they're Blake's own singing, manipulated and shifted). The album reaches the #9 spot on the UK album charts, and hits #1 in Flemish Belgium! (It charts considerably lower in Wallonian Belgium.)

MARCH 2011 Every year, SXSW seems to produce a couple of unanimously critically praised standout acts, and this year Blake becomes one of them (balancing the other, polar opposites Odd Future), thanks to his reportedly transcendent performance at Austin's Central Presbyterian Church.

MAY 2011 Blake makes his Seattle debut at an almost instantaneously sold-out Tractor Tavern, the kind of ridiculous mismatch of intimate venue (one largely associated with folk and country pathways that run nearly perpendicular to Blake's) and rapidly blowing-up artist that will be sure to generate a whole lot of "I was there" bragging rights.

2012 Blake pioneers the now sound of post-post-dubstep; Mayan calendar ends.

music@seattleweekly.com

 
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