This Sampha album, his debut full-length, is great. There’s not a bad song on here, Sampha does interesting things vocally and from a production standpoint, and his lyrics are thoughtful and personal while staying wrapped in deep metaphors and double meanings. And because it vaguely fits into the ever-expanding genre of R&B (with Sampha’s sound tinted more by synthesizers and effects ala Frank Ocean or fellow British contemporary James Blake), the songs are pleasant, melodic and listenable as background, dinner-party music in addition to being compelling close listens. And with close listens comes the revelation that this is very much an album about grief.
Like many, I first heard of Sampha through his vocal work on SBTRKT’s wonderful first album. His voice has been compared, favorably, to James Blake (and for good reason), but Sampha can dig into softer, more personal territory, and it shines through on some of Process‘s best tracks. After kicking off with the building, atmospheric “Plastic 100° C”, which extends an outer space metaphor to include spoken-word Neil Armstrong samples and blast-off noises, the album finds true form in second sequenced “Blood on Me”. Sampha has spoken extensively about where the song’s anxious, paranoid lyrics come from, and the trip-hop drum beat, rattling cowbells, jangling piano and panting vocal harmonies serve to build a nightmare surrounding Sampha’s voice, which sounds like it’s running through the song, losing breath, as he sings “I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me!” This attention to detail, to be sure that all elements of the song contribute to its lyrical themes, are part of what puts Process a cut above its peers.
Ditto for “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, which, after the claustrophobia of the first three tracks, takes the album into minimalist piano-ballad territory. Sampha is singing about how “Know one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home”, therefore the song is stripped back and the piano is featured prominently, not doused in effects but sounding like it’s coming straight out of his mother’s home. But the piano is a greater metaphor for Sampha’s late mother’s love, as he sings on the chorus “You know I left, I flew the nest / And you know I won’t be long”. The album continues with another stark piano ballad, the two-minute, “Take Me Inside”, to finish the front side, before switching gears again with “Reverse Faults”. The track uses reversed synthesizers to engineer a beat over which Sampha rattles off metaphors about his own faults – “Took the brake pads out the car / and I flew”, “I shot the blame and it scattered / Now there’s bullt holes spread across the walls”.
Across the album, Sampha sings with an anxious edge, worried less by the actions of others but by his own potential to fall apart, and it isn’t a stretch to suggest he is haunted by the recent losses of his parents. Never is this more apparent than on “Blood on Me”, but on the second half “Under”, Sampha buries himself under a chorus of vocal harmonies chanting “under” as he sings “Waves come crashing over me, I’m somewhere in open sea/ I’m gasping for air”. “Timmy’s Prayer” follows suit, a writing colab. with Kanye that takes the latter’s penchant for big, slow-jam drum beats and pairs it with Sampha’s séance-inspired address to his late parents – “If ever you’re listening, if heaven’s a prison / Then I am your prisoner”.
The record concludes with its most ambient track, “What Shouldn’t I Be”, which lacks percussion and is led by harp and soft, spacey synthesizers. The track ends the record in the present, as Sampha sings “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection, signal / To how we were”. This album does not end on a happy, forward-looking, cathartic note. Rather, Sampha is just as unsure as ever, singing “Family ties / Put them ’round my neck.” The album title seems to refer to Sampha’s process of coping with his grief, or processing what has happened in his life, but the record’s fleeting happy moments occur only in the past, and the process seems, at the moment, to be ongoing.
Tight thematically, sad but intriguing lyrically, well-arranged and well-sequenced, Process is certainly a success. I kind of want the record to perhaps take a few more risks, include a few more high energy tracks ala “Blood on Me”, and shoot for some bigger, more bombastic, grandiose moments, but given the content that inspired the lyrics, those moves might not have suited the record’s emotional palette. Still, I anticipate this cracking many a year-end list, and for good reason – Sampha has delivered one of the best albums of the young year.