By the time he makes it to the stage, bros in owl-emblazoned (Drake’s unofficial logo) hats and underage girls with butt cheeks peaking out of their shorts are spilling into the arena in growing numbers, but if anyone is excited to see James Blake perform, it’s hard to tell. Still, he quickly takes his place behind a rig of synths and leans into a jarring and evocative set that he starts off with spooky, booming renditions of “I Never Learnt To Share” and “The Wilhelm Scream.” As he gets into “CMYK”—an expertly looped and undeniably groovy cut from one of his earlier EPs—the bros and their babes can’t deny the swaying energy of Blake’s more upbeat work. Blake ends his set with “Retrograde,” a sweeping ballad from his recent album—and his biggest hit to date—with a sparse, looped hum and distant clap that finds him gasping for affection. Watching him belt it out to a still-filling-out stadium, it’s hard to believe someone so interior has such an enormous voice.
Backstage after the performance, Blake concedes that he wishes he’d performed to an evening crowd, but he made due, and again, he’s happy to be here. And then Ma$e—the legendary Bad Boy rapper-turned-pastor—walks by. Though Blake has never listened to his music, he’s heard of him, and is surprised to see him here. The reality of Blake and Ma$e being in the same room is hard to make sense of, but alas, this is the magic of someone like Drake. He’s able to bring these two disparate entities together.
“Drake has pretty broad tastes,” Blake says later. “You find that with people who are really into music, they’re very often not just listening to one kind of music. While he makes hip-hop, that doesn’t stop him from liking other music.” Despite occasional ridicule, the general public has come to accept Drake’s divergent tastes, because he collaborates with artists in earnest and is able to meet them in their own comfort zone. In recent memory, the Canadian rapper has worked with lo-fi producer Jamie XX, left-field crooner Sampha and soul icon Stevie Wonder. These are very clearly the liner notes of an eclectic man, but just as Drake has been celebrated for his daring entrees into outside genres, Blake’s acceptance into the hip-hop world has been a bit less fluid.
Still, with a resume like his, it’s clear that there’s some sort of connection between Blake and the genre’s biggest names; something that would explain the mysterious mutual respect. “I grew up in a lot of similar music,” Blake asserts, cutting through any hypothetical reasoning. “Not necessarily that I discovered hip-hop that early, but my influences are mostly Black American music. The song I was singing to warm up before I went onstage was ‘Trouble Blues’ by Sam Cooke. That gives you an indication of where I come from, from a musical perspective.” With firm roots in American blues, what Blake and his hip-hop counterparts lack in sonic overlap they make up for in stylistic similarities, namely the ability (and bravery) to delve into subjects like solitude and sensitivity in sincere, emotional ways.