Music Reviews

Album Review: Sampha – Process

A grief-stricken and beautifully honest debut from one of the most significant musicians in modern pop music.

Considering the volume of mesmerising releases he’s put his name to, it’s incredible to think that Process is only Sampha’s debut album. Brimming with potential, the South Londoner first appeared back in 2010; astonishing listeners as both SBTRKT’s key wingman and an achingly honest solo artist in his own right. Over that time, he’s lent his unmistakable set of pipes to all manner of tunes with Drake, Solange and Frank Ocean all calling on his expertise to tug at those elusive heartstrings.

“Family and grief are two subjects often dwelled on during [Sampha’s] debut”

Process, however, is a personal affair – a poignant record forged in the aftermath of great loss. In September 2015, following a five-year battle with cancer, his mother Binty passed away. Sadder still, when Sampha was just a child, his father died, also from cancer.

As someone who has always sought comfort in music, it’s no surprise then that family and grief are two subjects often dwelled on during his debut. Never one to shy away from intimacy, on Process Sampha divulges his emotional turbulence with an impressive level of fearlessness and poetic command. It’s the most overwhelming feature of the album if you ask me, with an underlying sense of vulnerability laid bare.

“Sampha seems to embark on a wild road trip through his own psyche, like some frenzied amalgamation of Hunter S. Thompson and Michel Gondry…”

One of Process’ most amazing admissions of helplessness comes in the form of ‘Blood On Me’. Pursued by hooded adversaries, Sampha seems to embark on a wild road trip through his own psyche, like some frenzied amalgamation of Hunter S. Thompson and Michel Gondry. “I’m so alone now/swerving out of control,” he gasps over suffocating, vehement productions, reflecting the void left over from his mother’s death: “I crash the whip”.

As if that doesn’t sound irresistible enough, Sampha has also proven his worth as a remarkable vocalist. Blessed with a truly distinctive style of singing, we’ve always been able to discern his presence on a track from a mile off; however – unlike those SBTRKT and Lil Silva collaborations where his voice was interwoven into a rich tapestry of futuristic dance music – Process sees Sampha’s vocals in their rightful position centre stage.

On ‘(Nobody Knows Me) Like The Piano’ particularly, his raw, emotive voice sounds nothing short of spectacular. An ode to both his recently deceased mother and his treasured instrument, it’s one of the album’s most authentic pieces. Gorgeously sparse, the song captures Sampha at his most poignant and affecting, singing falsetto over a (surprise surprise) piano backdrop in the same vein as his captivating 2013 single ‘Too Much’.

Despite his penchant for morbid lyrics, as a producer Sampha embraces his upbeat side with both hands. ‘Reverse Faults’ is an audacious, off-kilter pop song, its influences rooted in the sweaty dancefloors of London’s nightclubs. The following track, ‘Under’, features a dense crescendo of synths and vocals. ‘Kora Sings’, on the other hand, apparently takes its inspiration from the folk music of Mali. It’s a fidgeting, Friendly Fires-esque number, and yet despite the vibrancy of the productions, Sampha the wordsmith is still breathtakingly earnest, imploring his mother not to disappear.

Process never feels unwelcoming or self-indulgent”

Elsewhere on the record Sampha shuns experimentation for a more classic approach to song writing. ‘Take Me Inside’ and ‘What Shouldn’t I Be?’ are two beautifully minimal ballads, the latter evoking David Bowie’s ‘Moss Garden’ in its instrumentation. Co-written by Kanye West (who Sampha first worked with on ‘Saint Pablo’), ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ starts life as a euphoric soul number; however, as it unfurls, contemporary electronics artfully trickle in in a way not dissimilar to some of Jamie xx’s remixes for Gil Scott-Heron.

Overall though Process has the feel of an album created for deeply personal reasons. As he explains on ‘(Nobody Knows Me) Like The Piano’, Sampha plays music therapeutically, using the piano as a catharsis from the pain of reality. Even the title suggests that the LP was written for the sake of writing it. That said, Process never feels unwelcoming or self-indulgent. Yes, Sampha may have made this album primarily for himself, but listening in is an absolute delight.

Ben Edge

Image courtesy of Sampha via Facebook.

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