Sampha's gorgeous debut brings physicality and immediacy to internal experiences like memory and fear.
For an artist as prolific as Sampha, you could be forgiven for not realizing that up until now, he had not actually released an album. Many of us first came to know Sampha through his work with SBTRKT back in 2011, where he added a layer of warmth and introspection to gauzy dance tracks. Since that time he has further collaborated with everyone from Jessie Ware, Drake, FKA twigs, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange, those last three in 2016 alone. In short, he has been thoroughly embedded in some of the most significant musical works of the 2010s thus far, all without a full album to his name.
Challenges to the dominance of the traditional album format are in no short supply these days, but it is a rare feat indeed to become so ubiquitous in the cultural-musical landscape almost entirely through collaborations. As artists increasingly toy with their audiences' anticipation of releases, opting either for monumental surprises like Beyoncé or excruciatingly prolonged waits like Frank Ocean or Chromatics, it could be tempting to view the years leading up to Sampha's debut as hype-building via delayed gratification.
Process, however, evinces none of the grandiose solipsism that this approach might suggest. It was announced a reasonable three months ahead of its release and was preceded by a small handful of singles, making for a pretty low-drama rollout considering its substantial anticipation. The long wait seems not the product of self-inflation, then, any more than it is the process of simply waiting for the right time to engage in the project.
Regardless, the wait proves more than worth it. Process finds Sampha adopting a tone that is both singular and eclectic. He fuses soul with occasional, carefully chosen electronic sounds to craft a densely textured yet intimate affair. It feels as though you are present with Sampha as he sings, such that you can almost picture the space itself -- for instance, a room in his mother's home. The sparse ballad "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano", written as Sampha cared for his ailing mother shortly before her death, provides the album's centerpiece and aching emotional core. The gorgeous piano line mostly speaks for itself here, doing full justice to the sense of the instrument as a character all its own.
Sampha's lyrics, too, add a bittersweet heft to a song already weighty with memory and sorrow. His words are evocative throughout, but the simple line, "No one knows me like the piano in my mother's home" is most powerful of all -- not least because Sampha presumably sings it from some other piano far away from home, reinforcing a sense of displacement and painful nostalgia. "Like the Piano" is a testament to the inner life of loss, recollection, and healing, and one of the most powerful tracks of the English singer's career so far.
Process is a delicate, gentle album throughout, but elsewhere these qualities are tempered by a persistent, barely contained sense of anxiety and paranoia. "Blood On Me" expresses this most succinctly: the old school hip-hop beats that kick off the song sound almost fun at first until several layers of ominous vocals quickly dispense with any such notion. By turns Sampha's voice mimics the ticking of a clock and the rolling in of a fog; at the topmost level, he breathes heavily as though pursued, though by what we are left uncertain.
"Plastic 100°C" evokes a similar sense of unease, though if "Blood On Me" is a sudden outpouring, this one is more the result of chronic, prolonged stress. "I'm melting like plastic out here," Sampha sings, again suggesting a hostile, unforgiving environment out for his destruction. Here, Sampha's talent as a lyricist again comes to light: lines like, "I know what the scarecrow hears / It's like outer space in his inner ears" come across as a bit inscrutable, but still utterly evocative.
Process seems to develop confidence as it progresses, however, with its meatiest tracks landing in the second half. "Reverse Faults" and "Under" are the most electronic offerings here, and also some of the most melodically engaging. "Under", in particular, is an immediate highlight, a searing and lucid indictment of a lover whose machinations Sampha knows well despite being unable to loose himself from their control. "I see you manipulate your lover," he sings dissociatively, curiously taking a third-person perspective despite indications that he is, in fact, the lover in question ("I'm gasping for air!" he later sings, vacillating back to the personal and beleaguered).
On album closer "What Shouldn't I Be?", Sampha sings almost angelically in his upper register over the gentle guide of a harp, allowing the listener a rare moment of peace and serenity. "You can always come home / And Mother always knows", he quivers, explicitly returning to the themes set by "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano". The song is partly about family and how it informs one's identity and place in the world, but Sampha wisely avoids gushing into sentimentality with frank lines like, "I should visit my brother / But I haven't been there in months / I've lost connections, I know / To how you were". Family is an ideal and a source of strength, but he also acknowledges the flaws and fissures in the makeup of any family unit, making for a more realistic and impactful portrait. At the end of an album often constricted by anxiety and fear, "What Shouldn't I Be?" at last accepts the power of self-determination.
Ultimately, after all of the fretting and agonizing and introspection, Sampha reaches a simple conclusion: "It's not all about me," he intones, and with that, he is gone. The album these words leave in their wake is one that brings physicality and immediacy to internal experiences like memory and fear, while sacrificing none of their nuance and fundamental ineffability. Despite Sampha's longstanding prevalence in the music world, the intensely personal nature of Process demands a renewed relationship to his work, one that appreciates the power of distance yet marvels at connection.