Although you may not recognize his name, Sampha is a voice you’ve likely heard before. The singer, songwriter and producer from South London has had his hands in many of the best R&B, neo soul and electronic records of the past few years. He co-produced four songs on Pitchfork’s top album of 2016, Solange’s spectacular record, A Seat at the Table, and lends his vocals to one of the top singles from that album, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” He’s worked heavily with British DJ and Young Turks label-mate SBTRKT. He’s been featured in tracks by Kanye, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and Drake, yet hadn’t released a full debut album of his own until this week’s Process. When a new artist like Sampha gains the respect of so many talented and influential musicians before they’ve even put out a debut album, it’s good to pay attention to their solo work ,and I’m glad I did with his new project, Process.
As Sampha states in the heartfelt ballad about his childhood, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” he has “something some people call a soul.” His vocals aren’t perfect and clean, but they carry tremendous emotion. His voice is like a beautiful, passionate mixture of James Blake, Frank Ocean and Leon Bridges, and he’s already learned how to compliment it well with the instrumentation on his debut LP. On “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” one of the lead singles of the project which Sampha dedicates to his mother, he strips back the instrumentation and creates an amazing back-and-forth between himself and the piano that make you believe him when he says, “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home.” The listener can feel the true demand he feels for self-expression. That amount of soulfulness is special, and Sampha has it.
You hear that soulfulness again when he sings of the ways he blamed a past lover for his own underlying problems in “Reverse Faults,” using the metaphor of taking the breaks out of his own car, getting into an accident and blaming the other person in the relationship even though it was his own doing. You hear it when in “Timmy’s Prayer,” perhaps singing about this same ex, he laments that, “I got thrown out / I don’t know which way to go now / Don’t know which way is home now.” Not only is his vocal delivery powerful, but Sampha also does an incredible job of painting a picture with his lyrics.
His lyrical imagery is most notable on what is perhaps the best song on the album, “Blood on Me.” The most upbeat and exciting track on the record, “Blood on Me” features evocative images of a tortured dreamscape where Sampha is running away from his inner demons and fears. Throughout the track, the singer is out of breath and the repetition of the intro throughout the runtime of the song creates a dreadful, anxious chase scene in the listener’s mind. He has said in an interview with Genius that this track came about from improvising on the piano after watching the critically-acclaimed anime film Ghost in the Shell; the influence is obvious, as the emotion of a cold world filled with enemies around every corner really comes across in the delivery of this track.
Some might lob the same criticisms on Process that many initially did on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, which Sampha worked heavily on. They might say that it’s too low-key, especially within the deeper cuts of the record. However, his style of electronic-infused soul is not as laid back as it would first seem and has a lot of depth to it that rewards multiple listens, especially once you dig deeper into lyrics. Not every single song is a complete hit, but that’s to be expected with a debut record. Still, every song on Process showcases the unique artistry Sampha brings to the table. In the end, what we are left with is one of the best soul debuts of the past few years and perhaps the best album of the year so far.