Written by: TC
Over the last few years, we have seen a resurgence of left of center R&B. Previously the neo-soul movement of the late 90s and early 200s presented the retro side of the genre where as more recent artists such as Anderson.Paak, Solange and Frank Ocean display a more futuristic presentation of soul. Eschewing throwback melodies and recycled production style, this new vanguard has sought to move r&b into a newer direction. Sampha is an artist who throughly fits into the latter camp.
Even though Sampha has been making music since 2010 like most American listeners, I was relatively unaware of Sampha until his contribution to “Saint Pablo” on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo album as well as “Don’t Touch My Hair” on Solange’s A Seat at the Table album. Something about the tone and timbre of his very distinct vocals palpably conveyed vulnerability and the uncertainties of living in a confusing, hectic world. Upon hearing him on that song, I made sure to check out the singles that he had put out towards the end of 2016. “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Blood On Me” definitely let me know that Sampha could offer more than just an interesting voice. His debut album, Process, offers an even deeper glimpse into the world of Sampha Sisay.
Much of Process deals with Sampha, a native of South London, coping with his mother’s death to cancer and the struggle to live with the weight of grief. The arrangements of most of the songs are very spare and uncluttered. His voice is the main attraction throughout the album and Sampha makes use of different tones and volumes to convey his feelings. Production wise, this album stays away from any overtly commercial or trendy sounds. You won’t hear any trap influence or anything you would normally hear on top 40 radio. For the most part, there are minimal effects….some scattered percussion here…some light instrumention there. However, most of the songs are still somewhat accessible and avoid being overtly avant-garde. That minimalism is a bit of a blessing and a curse. It gives the album an unified tone and helps personify the weight that grief can have on one’s life. However, at times the album can sound a bit samey and drag a bit especially once the track “Reverse Faults” comes around on the middle of the album. Perhaps, Process could have used one or two more uptempo songs in order to prevent the listener from tuning out.
In spite of some of the material sounding somewhat similar, the album never becomes truly repetitive. There are definitely tracks that stand out from the pack. “Blood On Me is one of the few more higher BPM songs on Process. In this track set to a vaugely hip hop inspired drum pattern, he describes a vivid dream of him dealing with his anxieties as almost faceless hoodie wearing apparitions attacking him in the street. He uses a hypnotic vocal pattern to put the listener in an almost trance-like fugue state while he details a private, vulnerable moment. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano is another exceptional track that really shows the depth of emotion in Sampha’s music. On this track, Sampha goes to back to a time in his early childhood specifically referencing how his father brought home a piano for him at the age of three. This childhood gift unlocked something inside of himself. “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home/You would show me I had something some people call a soul”. These song goes on to detail the passing of his mother and how the same piano was able to help him process and move forward through such a tragic loss.
While Process is a far from a perfect release, it more than adequately presents who Sampha is as an artist. While some people may be put off by the lack of catchy choruses or obvious hooks, this album is definitely worth a listen and is more rewarding with each listen. I look forward to hearing more of Sampha Sisay in the hopefully near future.