James Blake
Photo: Republic Records

James Blake Revisits His Roots on ‘Playing Robots Into Heaven’

Playing Robots Into Heaven is ultimately a flawed album, but at times it’s a worthwhile foray for James Blake into more beat-led, dancefloor-friendly music.

Playing Robots Into Heaven
James Blake
Polydor / Republic
8 September 2023

But what is post-dubstep anyway? A descriptor that can be applied to music with clear roots in the brief but vibrant dubstep scene, or rather simply (and maybe lazily) hard-to-categorize electronica with sub-bass. James Blake fulfills both categories, yet the label never completely suited him, despite the producer and singer being its most remarkable success story. 

Emerging from the late 2000s bass music milieu, Blake quickly developed a style and approach that would differentiate him from his contemporaries and influences. In two short years since his first singles and EPs, Blake went from excellent, if not unusual, dubstep to an alchemical mix of soulful downtempo, bringing with it the kind of widespread acclaim no artist from the scene had ever experienced or has since. 

Over a decade since that groundbreaking self-titled debut, James Blake returns to the sounds that made him a household name. Much has happened since, from collaborating with Beyonce to Grammy and Mercury awards. While Blake’s sound has not undergone many radical transformations, he has undoubtedly been inspired and shaped by changes in popular music and his relationship to it. 

The result is an album that looks back and forward, blending production styles from house, dubstep, and hip-hop and shot through with Blake’s trademark croon. It’s a mixed affair, its first half an exciting and often brilliantly experimental selection of future-facing electronic music, while its second is altogether more lethargic, middling, and abruptly forgettable.

Playing Robots Into Heaven is at its best in these first-half tunes, where Blake seems to revisit his early music and updates and expands upon it. “Fall Back”, with its infectious shuffling beat, is the kind of sophisticated bass-infused house one might expect from fellow dubstep alumni Joy Orbison or Pearson Sound. “He’s Been Wonderful”, on the other hand, is a dizzying blend of hip-hop and techno with vintage drums, expertly layered vocal samples, and mind-bending synth passages. 

“Tell Me” and “Big Hammer” are Playing Robots Into Heaven‘s real standouts, demonstrating Blake’s development and range as a producer. “Tell Me” is perhaps the most danceable, most explosively ravey song Blake has ever put out, its blistering drums and laser synths better suited to big rooms than headphones. “Big Hammer” remixes the ideas of his early releases for Hemlock and R&S Records, blending trap and electronic music with what sounds like a dancehall vocal sample, gradually pitched up and down to devastating effect.

Playing Robots Into Heaven takes a strange detour after this point, however, into safer and ultimately duller territory. “I Want You to Know” sounds like 2010s-era Burial, the enigmatic producer’s penchant for R&B samples dutifully referenced by Blake singing the Pharrell hook from Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful”. It’s okay, but feels more like a nostalgic pastiche than something new and innovative. 

Blake is a singer as well as a producer and features prominently on the opening tracks as well as much of the latter half of the album. The problem is that whereas his voice once may have carried a kind of yearning, searching quality, very often on the record, it feels indistinct somehow, such as on early and uptempo “Loading” or the somber but stultifying “If You Can Hear Me”. “Fire the Editor” suffers from similar problems, although it does have an unintentionally funny and quaintly British threat of “if I see him again… best believe me, we’ll be having words”.

James Blake’s sixth album is not wholly post-dubstep (if anything can be described as such), but it’s not clear what it’s trying to be either. It could be better understood as Blake’s attempt to return to his electronic roots without completely alienating his now global fanbase, but ultimately not entirely satisfying either objective. 

There are plenty of moments in Playing Robots Into Heaven when Blake’s spirit of invention and experimentation shines and shows his massive capabilities as an artist. Maybe the record would function better in a shorter format, such as an EP, and allow Blake to explore these sounds and styles without the pressure of catering to everyone over an entire album. 

Playing Robots Into Heaven is ultimately a flawed but, at times, interesting and worthwhile foray for Blake into more beat-led, dancefloor-friendly music. For followers of the dubstep scene, as Blake himself once was, it’s a tantalizing glimpse at where Blake’s sound has been and where it could go. For fans of Blake and popular music generally, it could be a slightly disappointing offering, lacking in memorable songs or the more high-profile and unusual collaborations for which he has come to be known in recent years. It’s an album lacking an identity, not unlike post-dubstep itself. 

RATING 6 / 10