When the musical world first heard about Sampha, it wasn’t like this. His first release, 2010’s Sundanza EP, is a collection of future-garage riffs and sketches. His first high-profile showing, a splattering of features on SBTRKT’s self-titled release from the following year, put his charred voice squarely in the front of another Young Turk’s take on the same style but kept him largely off the boards. But neither the beats nor his spot on the billing are the most pronounced difference between those releases and Process. Instead, that honor goes his ability to craft a world almost entirely alone – a world that serves as a monument to both grief and overwhelming love, one that deals with being alone and wishing for solitude. Whereas he previously threatened to become an artist known solely for features and co-writes (A selection, 2011-2016: Drake, “The Motion”; FKA twigs, “Numbers”; Solange, “Don’t Touch My Hair”; Frank Ocean, “Alabama”; Kanye West, “Saint Pablo”), Process sees Sampha shifting the spotlight, quietly yet firmly, towards himself.
It wasn’t supposed to take this long, though. In a note on Twitter in May 2016, Sampha said that he “had a lot to process these past couple of years, as we all do.” It feels deliberately open-ended, but upon listening to Process it’s not difficult to fill in the blanks: it’s a stark portrayal of a man struggling to make peace with his ghosts. After living with him for years, his mother passed away from cancer in 2015, mirroring his father’s battle with lung cancer in 1998. Many songs here feel like elegies to her, and the best ones are strikingly close: “An angel by her side, all of the times I knew we couldn’t cope / They said it’s her time, no tears in sight, I kept the feelings close / And you took hold of me and never, never, never let me go.”
In that way, Process is a deeply insular listen. This is the sound of a man that’s suddenly alone in the world, contrary to what his résumé of A-list collaborations may suggest. When romance comes up, it’s nearly always bad and nearly always, in his telling, broken because of his faults. When he sings about family, it’s about spirits: his father’s “mouth full of smoke,” his brother, who he’s “lost connection” with, his mother, whose presence guides his hand and throat. Very little goes right in this record, if Sampha is to be read as a reliable narrator. His is a world of messy, tangled, and confused answers where nobody ends up winning. But he looks for beauty anyways, and stumbles upon it in the most unlikely of places: amidst the paranoia and fear and self-doubt plaguing him, loved ones always find him to “wipe [his] wounds clean.”
His singing, thankfully, holds up to these lofty thematic ideas. Feature-first artists have an unfortunate history of their features outshining their solo releases, thanks to quality control or subject matter or their voice simply not working for the duration of an LP. Sampha manages to avoid those snares, and here, he proves that he’s as strong a solo artist as he is on another’s track. He’s still got that confidently-calm voice about him, swallowing his words when he’s quiet enough and staying understated and serene even in his most audacious vocal leaps. He allows himself to foreground this voice in the quietest of moments, too – he’s remarkably confident here, and he’s got every right to be. Even the weakest tracks here serve as showcases for excellent songcraft, with earworming melodies jammed into every nook and cranny.
If it weren’t for the words, though, it would be hard to pin Process as any of these thematic descriptors – insular, messy, confused. If anything, its instrumentals match his singing in their beauty. Sampha’s work as a producer has improved by leaps and bounds since his debut EP seven years ago – gone are the economical claps and eight-bit keyboards, replaced with spacious drums and woozy, dreamlike washes of synthesizers. Nearly every track here has some sort of wonderful sonic detail to it: the synths near the end of “Take Me Inside,” sounding like sunlight refracting through icicles; the muted percussion of “Kora Sings,” with a few glissandos and drum taps putting the track into an overdrive that feels inevitable; the spectral wails quietly, but indelibly, backgrounding “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.”
These are tracks whose instrumentals are wildly malleable; in addition to the range shown track-for-track here (for example: compare the delicate and airborne “What Shouldn’t I Be?” to the jittery and nervous “Reverse Faults”), songs evolve in ways that alternatively give Sampha room to breathe and suffocate him. Bridges turn into choruses or sudden endings; his voice worms its way into the beats and gets stuck (“Under,” “Reverse Faults”); samples pop up and dissipate before they’ve fully hit. These are instrumentals that are as confused as they are complicated, as sly as they are sophisticated. They work as companion pieces rather than simply functioning as background music, beats that sing as confidently as their creator.
Through sonics alone, then, Process creates its own universe for Sampha to navigate. It’s the excursions to busier areas that feel weakest, for they’re the most removed: the stuttering, plunging beat of “Reverse Faults” (for which “Numbers” is a precedent) serves as a solid track that seems largely out of place when put next to its calmer companions; “Incomplete Kisses” doesn’t seem to do much other tracks don’t do better – lyrically or texturally – even with its bizarrely large chorus, weighty bass, and thick synth layering. Sampha shows himself to be at his best when he’s working more subtly, showcasing his voice instead of hiding underneath drum tracks.
At its best, though, Process is a staggering piece of work. It’s vulnerable and candid without ever feeling artificial or cynically emoted. It’s the sound of both voice and production coming into their own. Listening to Sampha talk about his family throughout the release, one gets the idea that he’ll work through all of it, but not totally, not really: he lives with his ghosts, and that’s not going to change. He’ll gain confidence, and he’ll grow, and he’ll hold his head high, eventually. But for now, he’s got a lot to work through, and it’s as tragic as it is beautiful.
Recommended if you like: Frank Ocean, SBTRKT, Solange
Favorite Tracks: 2, 4, 5, 10