Sampha is an artist who has spent the vast majority of his music career as a fleeting shadow of brilliance on tracks by some extremely famous artists. You may be able to place his sullen vocals on Beyoncé’s ‘Mine’, Frank Ocean’s ‘Alabama’, Kanye West’s ‘Saint Pablo’, Drake’s ‘Too Much’ and several appearances on SBTRKT‘s 2014 album Wonder Where We Land. When not appearing beside some of the biggest names in rap/hip-hop, Sampha has been quietly releasing EP’s every now and then, simultaneously preparing for his first full release, building expectations for what was to come.
When he was three years old Sampha Sisay’s father brought home a piano, and while it had potential to serve as mute ornament, it became a confidant; a means to explore emotions that we can often become entangled in when confined to the space within our heads. This connection with the instrument reveals itself through the central part it plays in his brief but intense catalogue of anecdotal misfortune. On his EP Dual, his last solo trek before taking some time in the background. He relays to us his thoughts on his father who died of lung cancer in 1998. On closing track ‘Can’t Get Close’, he laments “I can’t get close to you”, the repetition of the line stripping him of emotional obscurity.
Building on this initial vulnerability in an touchingly organic manner, Process follows after the death of his mother Binty Sisay in 2015. Conveying grief of this magnitude is a tricky business, but Sampha does it in a brilliant, authentic manner, avoiding what could be considered an uncharacteristic display of aggression and instead producing a gorgeous blend of instrumentation and vocal performances that reflect precisely the volatile nature of grief.
‘100^ Plastic’ throws us straight into a pool of worry as he sings, “Sleeping with my worries, I didn’t really know what that lump was, my luck”, relaying to us a palpable anxiety. This anxiousness manifests itself in the adjacent track ‘Blood On Me’, as the tempo picks up and he gasps for breath between disjointed piano and antic drum beats. It is also on this track that we are shown the first hint of loss as he cries “I’m on this road now/ I’m so alone now, swerving out of control now”. Sampha now finds himself with no foundation of support; there isn’t an option to freefall, to rely on the advice and support of one’s parents. ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ is a profound tribute to his late father, pouring out nostalgic gratitude in the repeated line “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home”. The entire track revolves around beautifully delicate keys, but there’s a wealth of other elements at play that makes the track all that more authentic.
Sampha’s voice has a fantastic tone and range, but the true gift lies in his control of it. The falsetto is raspy when it needs to be, and powerful when it doesn’t. Subtle vibrato weighs enough in bass heavier tracks such as ‘Under’ to contribute to the overall turbulence without distracting from the amalgamation of instruments that clamber their way forward. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t sound fake. Grief can so be often be conveyed as cliché and insincere in songwriting, but Sampha manages to avoid this by bearing his soul to us and confessing the thoughts and realities that affect his life in a raw, absolutely unaffected manner.
In a world full of music with false optimism and empty messages of hope, it takes courage to release a debut LP that deals with such personal and bleak realities. Sampha has taken his time with this release, and it shows in the control of his voice, cohesiveness of the music and the honest presentation of grief and loss. The aptly named Process is the manual that Sampha will live his life by until true relief comes, stumbling forward in the hope that the pain becomes bearable, even if just for a minute, and for these admissions alone, we owe it our attention. Mitchell Goudie