Bad Cameo

When James Blake and Lil Yachty debuted as divisive wunderkinds, they earned feverish acclaim—and controversy—for the way they blurred the lines etched by their predecessors. Blake stormed dubstep’s dancefloor and rendered it a dusty confessional booth; Yachty looked at the hip-hop landscape he inherited, cursed its gods, and spent the beginning of his career at war with a generation. Not everything has changed: They’re still divisive, and they’re still doggedly trying new things. But they aren’t upstarts anymore; nor are their disruptive ideas breaking boundaries so much as reinforcing them. (So long, saxophones, and so long, rap.) A pair that once embodied youthful iconoclasm now often seem to see only as far as their next grievance. More and more, they sound like the gatekeepers who didn’t believe in them years ago.

Thus the defensive crossover spectacle of Bad Cameo, their new joint album. Few things announce themselves louder than a tag-team LP by a polarizing producer and an equally polarizing rapper-turned-rocker. But instead of provoking, this record largely takes the low-key road, like a terse postscript to a more transgressive past. It’s dreamy and occasionally danceable, steely electronica rubbing shoulders with a sharp, stadium-ready take on Yachty’s sing-rap sensibilities. The shoulder-rubbing is promising, but at a certain point, when the friction hasn’t progressed any further, the party starts to feel like a corporate lunch: Hey Post-Dubstep, have you met Post-Trap? I’ll leave you two alone to hit it off! Sometimes, they do. More often, Blake and Yachty are cozy in their respective corners, taking turns in the spotlight rather than sharing it. You get the sense that they’re trying to rekindle old magic—the wonders Blake worked with his glitchy soul-searching, the weightlessness Yachty proffered with his pitch-shifted lilts. These elements sound nice next to one another. They’d sound even better if they did more than just coexist.

When Yachty released “Poland,” his unlikely 2022 hit single, part of the draw was his quivering, liquid delivery: “It is a really fucking weird song,” Blake told him in a recent sit-down, revealing that it brought him to tears. He’s right to identify the weirdness as jolting—at least enough to channel raw emotion, or inspire it in others. But when they try to accomplish this on Bad Cameo, they sound maddeningly riskless. The title track registers like an attempt to run “Poland” through Blake’s chilly alt-pop processing and produce something equally apt for dorm rooms and sound baths. There’s a repeatable mantra, minimal frills that foreground the vocals, and an air of confession—only now, instead of spiking one another’s worlds, the crossover dilutes their respective strengths. “Did you ever love me?” Yachty begs, in full “Poland” voice, with Blake echoing his prayer in the background. You might recall a similar plea on the 2022 song (“Hope you love me, baby, I hope you mean it”). Where “Poland” producer F1lthy supplied Yachty with a jumpy, trap-infused hotbed, Blake’s canvas is restrictive, limiting the singer to a cramped crying closet both have outgrown. Solemn as it sounds, it’s hard to take very seriously.

Part of Bad Cameo’s appeal is the promise of a novel palette: lean meeting lemon tea, hip-hop meeting post-dubstep, confessionalism meeting vanity. Sometimes, as on “Twice,” this works beautifully—a staggered four-on-the-floor beat might morph into something airier, a haggard Yachty and wistful Blake taking turns reveling in their respective terrains. Other times, in moments where you’d expect the contrast to unearth rich new flavors, there’s a dulling effect. “Save the Savior,” a crunchy ballad that sounds a bit like a screen-adapted Future therapy session, would absolutely crush in a ritzy, white-walled gallery. Play it a second time, this time with the pair’s capabilities in mind, and it starts feeling like it should go beyond those insular limits. Blake is coming off his most energetic and danceable record to date; Yachty is freshly removed from a risky, compelling—if controversial—psych-rock dispatch. Considering the boundary-breaking instincts each contributor brings to the table, Bad Cameo feels too safe, too familiar, to tell us anything we don’t already know.

The bulk of Bad Cameo’s novelty arrives, instead, in songcraft. To Blake’s credit, he’s a master of seeing tracks as living things, subject to as much growth and meandering as the masterminds who make them. Familiar as they may feel, the most striking songs on this project keep some powder dry, sprawling into realms far beyond their starting places. Midway through “Midnight,” when Yachty and Blake’s harmonized refrain gives way to a beat switch and the drums fall out from beneath their voices, it sounds like they’re prostrate before something powerful. “Woo” begins with an echoey grand piano over a trap beat, no new addition to the annals of introspective hip-hop. But by the chorus, it seems like it’s all falling apart: The drum pattern sputters, and a sly ghost chord gradually infiltrates Blake’s somber progression, culminating in a single jolt of dissonance. You wish there were more room for such uncompromising mischief.