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James Blake and Lil Yachty dovetail on Bad Cameo

Release date: 28 June 2024
JB x Lil Y Bad Cameo cover

As two of the most restless figures in electronic and hip-hop music, this collision feels right.

James Blake can switch from blue-eyed soul crooner to banger merchant in a heartbeat; Lil Yachty made a psychedelic LP in 2023 just for the hell of it. While its sudden announcement was a surprise, a full-length project between the two is nothing if not an interesting proposition.

The first question for any such joint effort is, of course, how do they fit together? Will they conjure gorgeous new sounds like Bob Plant and Alison Krauss, or an ungodly racket like Metallica and Lulu? Will they push each other to new heights like Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA, or goof around aimlessly in the sun like Shaggy and Sting?

Thankfully, the pair drop straight into a captivating partnership. It’s complementary stuff, not so much yin and yang as yin and a bit more yin. While their solo works bear little resemblance to each other, they have similarly low-key delivery methods. Yachty is a mumbler extraordinaire, while Blake doesn’t sing songs so much as haunt them. The title track opens Bad Cameo in plaintive form, the heavily treated vocals rippling over one another before blending into the calm waters of the instrumental. It’s hard to tell where Blake, Yachty, and even the loops begin and end; it’s all a comforting, zenlike oneness.

This is no ambient comfort blanket, though. The pair build tension and anxiety on “Red Shoes”, first in the paired vocals that occasionally touch on discordance, later with the buzzing synth that sounds like a phone vibrating insistently on a wooden desk, undoubtedly bearing bad news. The lyrics hint at a fear of a future that might yet go unfulfilled - “I wanna be here for the first grey hairs / And when they arrive we’ll roll out the red carpet,” Blake sings, slowly, nervously. Then, above the stress-inducing throb of the phone-synth, Yachty reaches, relatively speaking, a fit of pique: “All of my mistakes were made under a microscope / I can’t learn in peace… / What gives them right to judge my faults?”

Bad Cameo’s instrumentals are often sparse in the interest of foregrounding the above-the-line protagonists, but a lot of the best musical moments come when the pair get to show their creative turn of pace. “In Grey” piles up sequenced runs that chime like otherworldly church bells, somehow electronic and pastoral all at once. Suddenly Blake’s euphoric vocal ad libs trigger a sharp turn into the first great lift off. Everything’s given over to the skittering trap beat and a bassline that alternately chugs and lurches. “Missing Man” deploys a similar trick. Already boasting one of the album’s best set of harmonies, it’s buoyed further when the beat drops at the halfway point, resulting in one of the record’s most complete tracks.

The least satisfying moments often come when the tunes are particularly heavily weighted towards one performer or another. “Transport Me” just sounds like Blake producing a quite good beat for the Atlanta rapper; Yachty then delivers lyrics (not his strongest suit) for a full minute. Similarly, “Run Away From The Rabbit” loses a lot of momentum during the lengthy stretch of Blake emoting over a reverb-drenched piano - we’ve heard that plenty. During these moments, the result is briefly less than the sum of its parts.

But then they pull out something like the bustling, immensely catchy “Twice”, working with the strengths of both performers. Yachty snaps away at the sticky hook, with Blake adding priceless texture and making the track throb with thick bass. True to form, the song can’t stay still for more than a couple of minutes. The blissful pop of the first movement gives way to the pulsating and combative second, with Yachty in motivational speaker mode: “You think they shit don’t stink? / Fuck ‘em! / Fuck all them!”

Even for those of us who’d never before considered the possibility of a James Blake and Lil Yachty collab, Bad Cameo somehow provides exactly what you’d expect. Ideas in abundance, terrific variety, a little indulgence, and an end product that actually makes perfect sense.

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