Sampha is a singer, songwriter, and producer from London, and appears to be an innately modest man despite his triple-edged sabre of talent. He’s been on the scene for over a decade, beefing up tracks by famous artists (Beyoncé, Solange, Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean to name a few), his voice usually bringing unmistakeable shades of melancholy and humility to the mix. See particularly “Saint Pablo” and “Don’t Touch My Hair”, songs greatly enriched by his subdued presence. Yet it’s taken until this year for him to record a full-length album.
The reason, it seems, is that he suddenly has a lot to say. In recent years he’s suffered from health scares (explored in “Plastic 100ºC”) and unexpectedly become the primary caregiver to his mother. She sadly passed away from cancer in 2015. These and some of the more commonplace relationship struggles that afflict young men are the main topics on Process, a promising debut that whispers of greater talent to come.
Unlike Frank Ocean’s Blonde, to which this has been compared, Sampha uses plentiful electronic beats to spice up his productions, and doesn’t seem to be allergic to melody, either. These are the entry points to Process, along with Sampha’s warm voice, which sounds wounded yet crucially never proud of being so. The album is rarely difficult to listen to, despite its hefty thematic concerns.
I like nearly everything about the man who shines through the electronic trickery: the thoughtful inquisitiveness, the empathy (even for ex-lovers after they’re gone), the sincere and oh-so-human need to share with everyone the process of his grief. True, he’s sometimes too dour in tackling broken romances, which can invite ridicule. Lines like “You struck a chord and I listened/You damn near broke all the strings” from “Reverse Faults” are clever, but a tad overdramatic. Only a tad, mind, because for the most part Sampha deftly avoids the maudlin melodrama of too much R&B balladry.
Elvis Costello once said, in order to ascertain whether an album was special, “play track 4 – it is usually the one you want.” So it proves to be on Process: “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is the point at which you should be able to work out that Sampha is more than just another over-hyped young talent. The solo piano ballad is a treacherous testing ground for artists, because it can so easily encourage a self-satirising display of over-emoting. Yet Sampha passes the self-imposed test with flying colours: he keeps his voice contained within the requirements of the melody. He draws attention to the words he sings rather than the virtuosity of his vocals. Which is significant, because the words sting: the next four words after the title are “in my mother’s home”, and that relative’s absence is painfully felt in the empty spaces of the composition. The effect of the whole is utterly heartbreaking.
Other tracks are wilder and show off his range – “Blood on Me” concerns grey-hooded creatures chasing Sampha through a bizarre dream world, whilst a trap beat and alarming bass distortions suddenly emerge in the song’s coda to increase the sense of paranoia. “Under” uses its title as a looped hook, which sometimes metamorphoses into “thunder” and takes on an added menace. “Take Me Inside” starts off as yet another piano ballad, but soon gets lost in a magical, dreamy synth world that you’ll always look forward to revisiting.
Sampha’s creativity is readily apparent, although he hasn’t quite got it under full control yet (the second half of the album is a lot less gripping than the first). What other R&B artist would have the guts to concede at the end of his debut album “it’s not all about me”?
His mother would be proud.