Sampha – Process

With this album comes a collective sigh of ‘finally’ – but when you hear it you understand that it comes not a moment too soon, nor too late. In the three and a half years since his last EP, Sampha Sisay has matured as an artist, learning lessons from collaborations with some of pop’s biggest names, and has produced an album that stands head and shoulders above his previous work. Process is as graceful as it is intimate, one of those rare moments where an artist claims their place at the top.

The album is built on Sampha’s piano compositions, which are elegant and sensitive throughout. His vocal style is uniquely delicate, his voice often looped to form rich choral arrangements. The mix of these with his production style is what makes his music so characteristic: he absolutely embraces electronic experimentation, using it in contrast to the unadorned piano and vocals to create an album that, musically, covers an incredible breadth of sounds, and stylistically inhabits a space all its own. Thematically, Process is very personal, and feels painstaking in more ways than one: you can’t help but feel the meticulous, even obsessive work, that’s gone into each song, along with a certain fragility in Sampha’s offering up of his music.

Serene opener ‘Plastic 100°C’ starts with a clip of Neil Armstrong’s voice over soothing guitar, establishing an exploratory and ambitious feel to the album – but also one of caution, as Sampha debates the pressures of artistic creation. It’s surprisingly open and abrupt, the address of a personal concern that feels almost confidential. It’s an openness that’s repeated in the smooth but passionate ‘Timmy’s Prayer’, where Sampha seems to lay out his faults and regrets, and in the family-oriented closing track, ‘What Shouldn’t I Be?’, in which he discusses neglected relationships. This last song is one of the most stripped back on the album, reflecting how Sampha is laying himself bare, and features predominantly vocals, with his own drawn-out groans looped as harmonies, over an effect that sounds almost like a harp.

That’s not to say the album is all placid. Right from track two there’s an instant mood change for the ominous and dramatic ‘Blood On Me’, its shuffling drumbeat and stabby vocal layers over Sampha’s breathless and impassioned vocals. It’s eerie but dynamic and well-made, with a keys line that wanders in and out of mirroring his vocals. Likewise, ‘Kora Sings’ is tense, unsettling at times, but also extremely satisfying: the percussion is intended to be jarring, but also complements the compelling melody played, presumably, on a traditional kora. Here, Sampha’s blend of the antique with the modern is at its best.

On ‘Take Me Inside’ his vocal range comes to the fore, and his unusual choice of runs, laid over a warped piano. ‘Reverse Faults’ is restrained over a deep sub bass, and contains the most gratifying resolves in the album. Perhaps the most powerful song though is also the softest, ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’, which takes as its subject his mother’s piano. As such it revisits the family theme, and addresses his mother’s death. It’s moving and vulnerable, mostly vocals and piano, with very faint percussion and a quiet bass rumbling under much of the track before a fade to birdsong.

It’s an emotional album, but one that never goes too far and becomes self-indulgent. It gives due attention to Sampha’s talents as a singer and pianist, while giving him license to experiment with electronic composition. Not one song falls under the benchmark, and he has harmonised the competing approaches so as to develop and define his own style. Process is well worth the wait.
Ben Noble