Sampha: Process

Scott Wallace
8th Feb 2017

If you're familiar with the work of Sampha, the South London singer-songwriter with the inimitably silky, dusky voice, then you may think of him as an industry veteran, so ubiquitous has his presence been for the last half decade. Sampha can count Drake, Beyoncé, Jessie Ware, and Solange among his collaborators, and yet this is his first album. It's a strikingly modest, but refined and gorgeous debut that plumbs the depths of Sampha Sisay's soul.

Immediately, Process establishes itself as a portrait of isolation, alienation and anxiety. Enigmatic opener "Plastic 100°C" fades in on a gently unspooling harp melody that finds Sampha floating in space. "Houston, can, can, can you hear?" he stutters. Even if your first taste of the album was the Kanye West co-produced single "Timmy's Prayer," which is buoyed by what sounds like a meandering melodica and bright droplets of synth bass, finds Sampha locked in lovelorn self-evisceration. 

These themes aren't necessarily new ground for R&B music in the 21st Century, but alongside producer Rodaidh McDonald, Sampha creates a sound world beyond the disinterested beats and wispy synth pads favoured by his contemporaries. Frequently the album is surprising and sensual, like the searching "Kora Sings," circling like a clockwork folk dance, or the swirling "Under," where a ghostly choir and reverberating drums enshroud Sampha's vocals.

Sampha's skills as a songwriter are unquestionable. The storming, paranoid "Blood on Me," complete with a jagged beat that would make James Brown sweat, combines pitch dark lyrics with a soaring melody. Two of the albums finest tracks are the ballads "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano" and "Incomplete Kisses." The former is an ode to the piano that Sampha grew up with, deeply affecting in its honesty as it undulates and blooms with little more than Sampha's voice and the titular piano. "Incomplete Kisses," is similarly exploratory, dissolving into a feather-light, jazz influenced coda, but never losing sight of the hooks that Sampha's voice wraps around with supernatural ease.

Because Process is so miasmatic and almost dreamlike in nature, it can take more than a few listens to fully sink in. Sampha's lyrics are built on layers of suggestion, metaphor and abstraction, even while dealing with intensely personal themes, and the music on this album is the perfect reflection of that. With Process, Sampha has proven that he is more than just his gorgeous and distinctive voice, and that he's capable of making something enduring, affecting, and rewarding. 

Process is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.