Sky’s The Limit: Reflection By Loraine James

Frenetic beats and anxious words characterise the bold and thrilling new album by the artist behind our 2019 album of the year

Photo by Suleika Müller

"Haven’t seen family or friends / From Rugby to Essex / Feels like the walls are caving in," Loraine James sorrowfully whispers over the title-track from her third full-length album (and the second for label Hyperdub), Reflection. It’s perhaps no wonder James sounds mournful: 2020 was meant to be her breakthrough year, following the success of 2019’s critically lauded For You and I. Instead, the world came to a crushing halt and for a time, James’ prolific creativity did too.

Being unable to build on the success of For You and I was a crushing blow. As well as finding its way onto numerous album-of-the-year lists (including a top spot on ours), it earned a standout interview slot for Pitchfork’s Rising feature and was praised by the likes of The Wire for its diary-like intimacy and bold experimentation. James made the album entirely at home in her makeshift DIY bedroom studio on MIDI keys and minimal budget whilst working a full-time job as a teaching assistant. Had all her hard work been for nothing?

It’s a question James subversively asks throughout the first quarter of Reflection, the result of which is keenly felt on the album’s title track. "Feeling things not feeling things / Information overload / Taking their toll on me… feel like my head will explode / Anxiety, anxiety… it seems like there no end to this," James wonders over a solitary, icy drum loop, the sparseness of which disorientates. Dystopian, angular voices appear sporadically in the background too, reflecting the myriad conflicting, anxious voices that tormented James during lockdown. It’s hard to imagine dance music more sad or mournful, or how indeed James overcame her despair.

James admits she was adrift during lockdown, being without crucial support networks vital to both her work and mental health. She recently told Crack of how the lack of validation from regular gatherings with friends from the LGBTQ+ community, for example, affected her sense of self, as did not being able to meet with members of her local Black community. "At the beginning of the year, I was feeling really down about stuff and somewhat numb," James explained in another interview, admitting that both her creativity and confidence faltered. This coincided too with a summer of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. Seeing the global movement led James to interrogate her own identity and place in the world further.

The despondency James felt is at its bleakest on tracks like ‘Simple Stuff’, a diaristic confessional where James questions still out-of-reach equal rights for Black communities. James wonders: "I like the simple stuff… but what does that bring to me?" as she continues to observe vast inequalities in society, Black voices silenced all around her. Her emotive spoken word lyrics are put through a foggy analogue distortion to reflect this silence, with junglist beats and shrill drones used to mirror chaos and violence. Tellingly, by the track’s end, James’ voice is heard in digital: clearly and loudly in a determined statement of intent. It gives us a clue to where James finds herself by the album’s end, but not before more painful reflection first.

Take the world-weary ‘Self Doubt (Leaving The Club Early)’, where James worries about how her music will be received on the outside world, post-lockdown. Frenetic ’80s arcade-game sound-effects drown out James’ voice at the start as she nervously says: "I know you might not like this one / So just press the skip button you know." Underneath, dreamy, weightless electronics lead us around James’ lack of self-belief as she struggles to find any solid ground or confidence as lockdown and isolation strip her of the hard-won self-belief which she found after For You And I.

Rhythms on Reflection veer frequently between the frenetic and the feverish, the mournful and the melancholic, until a calmness comes, thanks in part to some life-affirming collaborations. James was able to begin work on Reflection in the summer of 2020 because of a stepping-stone EP, Nothing. As the EP’s title succinctly explains, James was totally numb and unable to feel – let alone create – but after seeking out collaborators on social media, a breakthrough came. The collaborations are abundant throughout Reflection too and mark some of her most assured offerings: her skills as a producer (particularly on drill tracks) are especially impressive. Through working with other creatives from afar, James starts to arrive at something that resembles peace.

Like her last album, Reflection is dizzying in scope. James re-imagines classic elements of dance and club with drill, R&B, grime, dub, electro and trap. Drill and R&B feel more predominant here than the other genres this time round, something James herself feels has seeped more into her work after a time spent listening to both forms throughout the early part of 2020. Her last album, whilst not overtly political, explored what it was like to be a queer, Black woman from a working-class background in a rapidly disappearing area of London. Here, there’s more of that too but with a greater urgency and boldness, like on ‘Simple Stuff’ and album centre pieces, ‘Insecure Behaviour And Fuckery’ (which features Nova) and ‘Black Ting’ (made with frequent collaborator Le3 bLACK).

With Nova, for instance, James explores the objectification of women in the #MeToo era. "Just hold my hand when we drive off the cliff / Bold to see justice it’s just a myth" feels like a Thelma and Louise-like nod to female friendship and empowerment in a world where gender equality is still a world away. "Smacked on the butt since birth / and during the pregnancy," Nova raps over this urgent plea for respect, sung over a techno beat and a clever Drexciyan chord progression. James’ adept mono auto-tuning of Nova makes the message sound both confrontational and weary: it’s a demand for equality but one with a long sigh wondering why women are still asking the same questions.

The gorgeous ‘On The Lake Outside’ (a collaboration with Baths) shimmers into a calm lullaby-like ode to the outdoor world, while on ‘Change’, James asks herself, "What are you gonna do about it? Huh?" as she snaps to her feet by focussing on rebuilding a future better than the past. The question drives James and lifts her from self-doubt to assurance and the frenzied sparseness of earlier tracks is replaced by soaring affirmations.

It’s perhaps seen most strikingly on the album’s standout, ‘We’re Building Something New’, with Manchester artist Iceboy Violet. "One million views of Black bodies bruised and you’re acting so confused? / The seeds they sowed bare strange fruit / They tryna bleed us for that juice," Iceboy Violet raps as they circle back to where James started on ‘Simple Stuff’ and ‘Black Ting’. But here, Violet and James offer a vision of hope for the future via airy R&B and soaring club synths: "The seeds we sow bare beautiful fruit / We’re building something new… sharing building supplies ’til we touch the sky."

Reflection is a striking step forward for James, who has reaffirmed herself as one of the UK’s most talented young electronic music artists. Lockdown led James to interrogate every aspect of her identity and the vulnerability she felt in doing so is a feeling many will be able to relate to here; so too is the bitter-sweet hope she finds at the end. This is both a call to change and a call to reflect; without the latter there can’t be the former, James says, on this brave, ambitious and challenging new album.

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