Sampha finds his voice and flourishes on debut album ‘Process’
Sampha has a lot of demons to run from. In 1998 the Morden, England-born singer faced his father’s death to lung cancer. “A child stood at a cemetery” Sampha delicately sings on ‘Incomplete Kisses’, left with nothing but emotions, a few memories and the family piano which his father had bought only a few years prior. Around thirteen years later, Sampha used that same piano to write his debut album’s chilling ballad ‘(No One Knows Me) Like My Piano’, a lament for both his first instrument and his mother, who was soon to die of cancer.
In Process’s second track, ‘Blood On Me’, Sampha illustrates his demons as faceless grey-hooded figures, who chase his mental struggles, as well as his own physical strains – in the form of an undiagnosable lump within his throat, discovered in 2011. The poetic nature of such illness becomes a recurring theme throughout the record, first metaphorically referenced on opener ‘Plastic 100°C’ as the lump of issues pushed away in Sampha’s mind. With vivid imagery continuously projected out of Process, Sampha demands his audience to not only listen to his highly personal memoirs, but to visualise them, as more and more cinematic layers of symbolism arise.
These visual layers are coupled with a diverse bundle of sonic ideas, stemming from Sampha’s musical experience thus far. Rhythmically hypnotic vocals on tracks like ‘Blood on Me’, ‘Under’ and ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ present connections to Sampha’s production and vocal work with SBTRKT. His soulfully controlled falsetto voice on ‘Reverse Faults’ and ‘Take Me Inside’ draw parallels to his performances with Frank Ocean and Solange. The trap beat which emerges out of ‘Incomplete Kisses’ nods to his involvement on tracks by the likes of Drake and Kanye. Moreover, ‘Kora Sings’ utilises African instrumentation and rhythms to undoubtedly pay respects to the artist’s Sierra-Leonne heritage.
“Now 28, Sampha has finally laid everything out on the line musically.”
Whilst all these influences may be familiar, their combination is not. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, Sampha’s meticulous control over his melodies and tone creates a unique tension consistent throughout the record, from its stripped back acoustic moments with solely piano accompaniment to the highly produced sonorous occasions. Reflected in context of each song’s message, this tension becomes oddly therapeutic for the listener and seemingly the musician himself. For Sampha, the expression of sound and emotion have had an undeniably tight-knit relationship ever since that piano arrived at three years of age. Now 28, Sampha has finally laid everything out on the line musically – and therefore emotionally – no longer running away from his demons, but sprinting head on towards them, as each track progresses.
With an impressive list of collaborations under his belt, Process is also noticeably solitary for the South Londoner. “I’m so alone now, swervin’ out of control now” rings out of ‘Blood On Me’, a motif which is reinforced by the singer’s voice becoming the solo focal point for the first time in his career. This loneliness spans for the album’s 40 minutes, guided by an echoing set of instrumentals which construct a terrain only the vocalist himself can truly concur. From the zero-gravity of “outer space in its inner ears” (‘Plastic 100°C’) to “gasping for air” in the “open sea” (‘Under’), all ten tracks of Process paint a picture with Sampha’s thoughts, experiences and talent dead centre, in isolation.
The album’s closer ‘What Shouldn’t I Be?’ soon unfolds into the most sensitive performance on the LP, a final display of those tender soprano vocals, which politely dance around a scaling synth harp. The piece works as a perfect conclusion to the album’s intimate journey of self-discovery, as Sampha debates his “need to grow” against the “family ties… round my neck”. These questions of identity may remain unanswered, but – as the album’s title suggests – it is the ‘process’ of musically addressing such challenges which provides the most peace of mind against one’s conflicts. For this reason, Sampha may musically expose himself for personal treatment, yet by doing so, allows his audience to empathise. Hence, they may be Sampha’s demons, but as his final words accurately point out; “it’s not all about me”.