British singer-songwriter Sampha usually stays away from the spotlight, adding his breathy vocals and touches of piano to the songs of other artists, including Kanye West, Solange and Drake. In a 2016 interview with Complex Magazine, he said, “There are songs I’ve played keyboard on, and I haven’t been credited. And I’m okay [with that], because I genuinely like making music.”
On his debut album “Process,” which follows his two solo extended plays from 2010 to 2013, the South London singer takes center stage, revealing his hopes and fears through his distinctively soft and textured voice and creating a deeply intimate work that will resonate with any listener experiencing personal turmoil. “Process” is a moody reflection that sounds as though it comes from the bottom of Sampha’s soul, masterfully taking the listener on a dreamlike tour through the singer’s psyche.
The clouded atmosphere created by both Sampha’s vocals and the instrumental production can make listening to “Process” feel like floating through a dreamscape, drifting between reality and delusion. This surreal effect is mirrored in the lyrics of “Blood on Me,” as Sampha sings “I wake up and the sky’s blood red / I’m still heavy breathin’ / Felt so much more than dreamin’ / I get up, they’re at the edge of my bed / Yeah, how did they find me, find me?” This terrifying sense of uncertainty permeates the album, with imagery like “The TV keeps glitching / The lights dim down and portals appear” continuing to blur the line between dreams, nightmares and the real world.
The unearthly tones of the album contribute to a general theme of worrying and anxiety, and lines like “Sleeping with my worries, yeah / I didn’t really know what that lump was,” from the song “Plastic 100°C” speak both to a general malaise and, more specifically, to distressing events in Sampha’s life. Sampha makes references to breaking glass, singing “You’re the crack inside the screen” and “I threw the blame and it shattered,” to reveal his fracturing sense of security. At the same time, his draws from the sensory feelings of “melting” and “bleeding” to build upon the overwhelming sense of loss permeating “Process.”
Sampha’s sense of vague existential dread is not the only force generating the dark undertones of “Process.” In the years leading up to the album’s release, Sampha had to cope with the loss of his mother to cancer and a growing estrangement with his physically disabled brother, who had suffered from a stroke. This put Sampha in the position of being caregiver to both his brother and ailing mother. The artist addresses his mother’s passing most directly on the track “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” recounting how “They said that it’s her time / no tears in sight/I kept the feelings close.” Indeed, family connections are a source of both sadness and strength for the singer; the contrast between lines “We don’t have to talk / I just need you here / But if you go away / Please don’t disappear” and “Family ties /put them round my neck” displays the complex relationship Sampha has with his family, as he recognizes both his need and desire for strong familial ties and his resentment of being constrained by them.
The most minimalistic track on the album is the aforementioned intimate “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” featuring only Sampha’s voice and piano, with soft drums and an occasional touch of reverb.
This song and the similarly sparse “Take Me Inside” provide both a contrast and balance to the rest of the album’s more densely layered synths, booming drums and hi-hats. Each track is produced with impressive attention to detail and has a distinct sonic identity. “Reverse Faults” is characterized by an erratic synth line and booming bass, while “Kora Sings” has galloping drums and rattles, along with strumming that sounds like a West African stringed instrument called a kora. At the same time, the album as a whole is highly cohesive and keeps a consistently airy, ethereal tone, held together by Sampha’s commanding vocal performances.
With the release of “Process,” Sampha has become far more than the occasional guest presence on the track of a more famous artist. The album introduces Sampha as a confident and unique vocalist, with a subtle ear for melody and talent for production that shows in the album’s intricately layered beats, created with help from prolific music producer Rodaidh McDonald, who has worked with artists such as Adele, the xx and Vampire Weekend.
“Process” places Sampha as a rising star in the flourishing scene of alternative R&B, alongside artists like Frank Ocean, Blood Orange and James Blake, appealing to listeners who appreciate unique voices and avant-garde production choices. Sampha’s full-length debut is ethereal and haunting, promising to leave a lasting impression on the souls of those who listen closely.
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