Sampha, full name Sampha Sisay, has built his trade by being a reluctant artist. Tipped as a star on the rise at the beginning of the decade, his EP releases (‘Sundanza’ and ‘Dual’) packed delicate but virtuosic vocals over warped, fractious beats. Dexterous in his ability to unify disparate soundscapes, black heritage music through a prism of futurist underground greyness — Sampha was merely scratching the surface of his abilities.
With ‘Process’, Sampha lays bare his soul through warm, tinted vignettes that are achingly humane. It’s this capacity for unfiltered vulnerability unlike his peers, that has resulted in endorsements by hip-hop heavyweights Kanye (‘Saint Pablo’) and Drake (‘Too Much’) as well as soul forerunners Solange (‘Don’t Touch My Hair’) and Frank Ocean (‘Alabama’). Sampha’s experiences and fears aren’t treated as linear, but an ever-changing, ever-evolving process. His truths shine in technicolour throughout the record’s ten tracks.
Sampha’s haunted. His demons, ghouls and ghosts come bubbling to the surface, as he faces them head on, winning some battles and losing others. ‘Blood On Me’, a wonderful slice of primitive paranoia, sees him travelling what seems like dimensions as he tries to outrun the sins of his former self. The inclusion of cyclical choral chant samples only adds to the affected tension; the organic hip-hop drum beat the only constant in a song packed full of epic melodrama.
The beauty of much of ‘Process’ is in the bare-boned emotion Sampha displays in coping with grief as a corporeal moving thing, instead of a hollow, static feeling. The loss of his mother to cancer, and the journey from diagnosis to remission to her eventual death is mapped out in stages and fragments. It aligns itself with Sampha’s wistful nature, conscious of not drowning the listener under an incessant stream of sorrow. “You’ve been with me since the cradle…you’ve been with me, you’re my angel, please don’t disappear,” a painstaking lyric sung over a propulsive, tribal-infused beat invoking the euphoric breakdown of Friendly Fires ‘Paris’.
In the hands of a lesser artist, ‘Kora Sings’ would have been a farcical, yet it’s Sampha’s adeptness as a composer that elevates his prose, the layered composition adding the necessary sinew and innovation. The grief that comes with loss breeds confusion and it weaves itself into Sampha’s relationships. ‘Take Me Inside’ is kaleidoscopic soul with nods to his past work with SBTRKT — what begins as a plaintive piano melody makes way for a coda that’s off-kilter with no resolution in sight.
Sampha makes the conscious decision to place his voice in the foreground throughout the record, choosing dryness over reverb. It’s a voice that fissures mid-range, frays into a whisper, and reaches for hidden depths. And what he lacks in range he more than makes up for in sheer expression, no more evident than on the lullaby ode ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’. The most conventionally structured song, it soars because of its easy sonic simplicity. The piano is a symbol of Sampha’s ties to his mother and father, and the gateway into the music that would become his saviour. ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ is perhaps the closest Sampha comes to a spiritual reckoning, enraged and exhausted, he laments a higher power. He may be beaten but he’s learnt the hard way that there lies a visceral power in invocation.
With ‘Process’, Sampha sings that life is about the arduous journey and not the end destination. That goes for his gradual but measured ascent from a supporting player to a fully-fledged artiste who has chosen to surrender his submissiveness in favour of an emotional epiphany. ‘Process’ is his ‘Carrie And Lowell’, a healing record for the broken, the lovelorn and the lost.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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