‘Process’ is a powerful tribute to Sampha’s growth
Owen Lane | Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Sampha’s been around. At 28, Sampha is practically middle-aged for the music industry, particularly in the borderlands of hip-hop, techno and R&B he inhabits. He’s the same age as James Blake, a fellow British musician that he evokes often on his debut LP “Process.” However, Blake’s been a hot name in music since his debut album dropped four years ago (Kanye West once declared Blake his favorite artist) while Sampha Sisay has remained relatively unknown. In the past five years, Sampha popped up on tracks by Jessie Ware, Drake and Katy B.; in 2016, Sampha’s notoriety mounted in a crescendo that mirrored the manic year’s events.
First he added a chilling desperation to Kanye’s manic final addition to “TLOP,” “Saint Pablo.” His vocal feature evokes images of an isolated prophet calling out for answers. By the time he joined Solange for a duet on her track “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Sampha’s ability to add a whole new dimension to tracks became undeniable. Sampha’s vocals are the Siren song that will keep you gripped throughout “Process’” 40-minute spin time. Even when the music falters from its captivating heights, Sampha’s vocals only pierce deeper, urging you to listen closer still to his latent joy and pain.
“Blood on Me” is the perhaps the most gratifying track on the whole album. By the second cut on the record, “Blood,” Sampha makes it very clear that he is taking the backseat to nobody on his solo debut. “Blood on Me” is a perfect union of a gripping musical arrangement and commanding vocals. The hard-hitting percussion complements a dark piano and strange synth bloops that pop up intermittently. The lyrics in “Blood on Me” reveal a paranoia that eats Sampha alive; he feels like other people can “smell the blood on [him].” This track appears at first to be a rather formulaic pop song, but it slowly reveals itself to be more and more schizophrenic as the track progresses.
One of the most delightful aspects of this album is its capacity to surprise and ability to transform. On “Timmy’s Prayer,” a dimly lit torch song suddenly morphs into a pounding dance beat and then into a dramatic confessional all at the command of its rhythm section. When, on “Timmy’s Prayer,” Sampha howls the only explicit language on this album, it hits with surprising force. When he punctuates the staccato vocals of “Under” with a prolonged moan that he’s “gasping for air,” the listener drowns in sound with him.
“(Nobody Knows Me) Like the Piano” contains the most heart-wrenching surprise on the whole album. When the song starts, it is easy to confuse it for some corny, saccharine ballad about childhood a la Sam Smith. But then, Sampha hits you with his sleight of hand. The second verse of the song slowly reveals the intimate connection between Sampha’s musical encounters in childhood and his mother, who he nursed through her terminal cancer diagnosis. The latter half of the phrase “no one knows me like the piano, in my mother’s home” is suddenly devastating. A song the listener thought was about an object is the bleeding heart of an extremely emotional album. It’s a magical transformation.
Young debuts are always something of a marvel. Artists like Chance the Rapper, Paul McCartney and Nas always command a special admiration for their musical brilliance at a young age. However, there is certainly something to be gained in an artist’s personal experience and growth. Sampha’s “Process” does not convey the raw artistic brilliance of “Illmatic” or “Acid Rap.” The title Sampha chose could not have been more fitting. In his 28 years, Sampha has undergone the difficult processes of struggling with ambition, finding success, losing parents and reflecting on what it all meant. With a powerful mixture of vocal performance and excellent music, “Process” gives its listeners an all too rare access to a true talent’s emotional growth.