I’ve been a fan of Sampha since 2013 when I first heard him featured on most tracks on SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album. I was absolutely captivated by his soulful singing voice, it was one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard. But I didn’t know who Sampha was. For some time I assumed he was behind the SBTRKT project before discovering it was Aaron Jerome. From 2013 until this year I heard Sampha featured on a number of tracks including Drake’s “Too Much” (which he sampled from a Sampha song from his 2013 EP Dual), Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” If I had bothered to look into his music I wouldn’t have found much though, before Process, his debut album, Sampha had only released two solo projects: 2010’s Sundanza and 2013’s Dual. Sundanza is hard to find because it’s not on any digital platforms and Dual is a brief 17 minute EP. Still had I discovered Dual earlier it could have tided me over while I awaited the debut album of an artist I loved but didn’t really know. This is partly due to Sampha himself. Sampha Sissay was born in Morden, South London to Sierra Leonean parents who came to the United Kingdom in the 1980s. His introduction to music came from learning to play on the piano at his parents’ home in Morden and listening to records given to him by his older siblings. In the few video interviews there are of Sampha he comes across as a very quiet, shy introverted person but someone who is a very talented and cares a lot about music. As someone who was very shy but has now broken out of their shell and is still a generally reserved and introverted person I relate to Sampha a lot. Sampha doesn’t give everything about himself away on Process but he’s brutally honest and it’s so beautiful but absolutely heart-wrenching at times.
Process begins with “Plastic 100°C”, produced by Rodaidh McDonald and Sampha. Process is full of sounds I’ve never heard before and the opening track introduces this musical palette to the listener. The track begins with a sample of Neil Armstrong saying “I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun.” This line conveys the feeling that Sampha feels by releasing this album he’s been in the background for so long but now he’s taking a huge step by putting himself in the spotlight but not quite fully plunging into it. Sampha’s voice is soft yet intense you can feel his desperation but he’s almost reluctant to share it. The chorus “it’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here” is just the one of many examples of evocative imagery Sampha will use on this album to describe the feeling of anxiety so perfectly. Here he describes the pressure and anxiety of this stage in his career as hot and that he’s melting because he’s made of out plastic not strong enough to withstand the heat of the music industry and fame. The line “oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah, I didn’t really know what that lump was, my luck” captures this anxiety perfectly by referring to a lump. The lump is both metaphorical and physical. You might feel the sensation of a lump in your throat if you’re nervous as well that the line also refers to when Sampha did actually discover a lump in his throat in 2011, a physical manifestation of his anxiety. Sampha’s father passed away when Sampha was 9 years old, his brother also suffered a severe stroke and then his mother, after having been diagnosed with cancer in 2010, died in 2015. This fear of illness and death is something I relate to even though it hasn’t affected me or anyone close to me personally I struggle with it everyday. I fear every day that either of my parents will fall ill or die and I can’t imagine what I would do and or how I would cope. I fear that something bad will happen to any of my siblings and I fear that I could die at any time. It’s a horrible feeling one that I have to distract myself with things so I don’t dwell on it but it’s one that never goes away and often resurfaces late at night and when I’m away from home.
I know grief is an inevitable feeling and I will eventually lose someone close to me and that’s a very frightening thought. But through Sampha coping and processing his grief on Process I know this album will help me cope and process my grief in the future. The album’s most emotional moment comes at “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” It’s a stripped back piano ballad as Sampha reflects on his musical upbringing and the memory of his recently deceased mother. It’s very very emotionally affecting I almost tear up every time I listen to it. The line “no one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home / You would show me I had something some people call a soul” ugh 😭. The song “Blood on Me” is a heart-racing frantic “banger” as Sampha describes the feelings of fear and anxiety as things which chase and haunt him: “I swear they smell the blood on me
I hear them coming for me.” His voice sounds more desperate than it did on “Plastic 100°C”, the breathing sounds make you imagine he’s literally running away from his fears and anxieties on the song. The production on this song is incredible, the tinny drums and the heavy bass as the song builds and builds until it climaxes. The song works incredibly well when you’re actually running if you’re feeling stressed out run with this song and imagine you’re escaping from your fears and anxieties it feels very cathartic. “Kora Sings” also has incredible production featuring a kora, a West African instrument, it has a very unique sound and combined with the drums on the song, it’s simply beautiful. The entire album is indescribably beautiful. The production, the use of percussion, the piano, it’s extremely well produced. Another example is “Take Me Inside” which starts off as another low-key ballad as Sampha’s soft voice croons away but then in come the electronic sounds and synthesisers as which build very quickly and then fade away.
“Reverse Faults” like “Blood on Me” is another banger. It feels weird to call any song on this album a banger because the lyrics are so very personal, emotional and reflective but songs like the two aforementioned just have an incredible breakdown and lyrics you want to scream out loud. The song goes from a mellow synthy instrumental into a more explosive electronic instrumental and Sampha sings “took the brake pads out the car and I flew” the lyrics just evoke the feeling of freedom. “Under” is another song which has beautifully evocative imagery to describe the feelings Sampha is experiencing “I’m somewhere in open sea yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah I’m gasping for air.” The production on this song to me sounds like the most like a James Blake song, the drums and bass have the feel of a James Blake song but the vocal performance is more expressive than any James Blake song. The vocal performances throughout this album are just incredibly expressive Sampha has so much range and so much emotion is felt in the way he sings the lyrics. “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses” are no exception. On “Timmy’s Prayer” Sampha cries out “I wish that I listened when I was in prison now I’m just a visitor I came to the gates but you turned me away you asked me what am I waiting for
I’m waiting ’cause I fucked up, ooh” here Sampha describes how he’s lost meaning in his life now both of his parents are gone and he’s questioning himself and God. Co-written by Kanye West, “Timmy’s Prayer” contains the same emotional honesty of Kanye at his best and that line is the one time Sampha swears on the album showing just how desperate he’s gotten. “Incomplete Kisses” is a melancholic, beautiful track with a piano and electronic sounds, the song builds up to an emotional climax which makes you reminisce about those moments where things were left unrealised. The final song “What Shouldn’t I Be?” is perhaps the most lowkey song on the album as Sampha quietly reflects on his past connections, his home, his family he concludes the album by saying “It’s not all about me (What shouldn’t I be?).” It’s an ambivalent end but one that suggests though he’s looking back and reconnecting with people in his life but he also has a better sense of himself as well. I’m so glad that Sampha has decided to put himself out there more because Process is a really impressive debut album and my second favourite album of the year so far. Like DAMN., my favourite album of the year so far, Process shows a black man who is not afraid to show that he’s vulnerable and that he also fears and has anxieties like everyone. I hope more artists like Sampha and Kendrick Lamar continue to do the same.