Sampha: Process

Sampha's gorgeous debut brings physicality and immediacy to internal experiences like memory and fear.



Label: Young Turks
US Release Date: 2017-02-03
UK Release Date: 2017-02-03

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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.