Review: Sampha – Process

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Originally published by Varsity on 17th February 2017

Sampha Sisay’s name may be unfamiliar to you, but if you’ve been keeping up with R&B and hip hop for the last few years, chances are you’ve heard his voice before. After making his name collaborating with fellow Londoner SBTRKT, Sampha landed major features across the pond on albums by the likes of Drake, Kanye and Solange. Now, after a string of singles and EPs, Process marks Sampha’s first full-length project in his own voice.

And Sampha’s voice is one of the first things you notice about him. It’s heavy, husky, sonorous – you can imagine it easily filling up any room that he happened to be in – but although the voice is undeniably powerful, it’s also vulnerable, uncertain, and insecure. Sampha sounds like someone who is deeply passionate, but also deeply unconfident, or at least too shaken by heartbreak and grief (his mother died of cancer two years before this album’s release) to sound confident. Sampha doesn’t have the suave self-assurance of many of his contemporaries, and that’s a big part of his appeal as an artist; much like another collaborator, Frank Ocean, he’s not afraid to let his guard down and allow himself to be fragile.

Sampha breaks the R&B mould in other ways as well. Instead of the usual staples of smooth-as-butter keys and relaxed drum rhythms, Process features cascading layers of futuristic synths and jittery, skeletal percussion. Even on more conventional tracks there are surprises: the slow-burning single ‘Timmy’s Prayer’, for example, features a sudden time signature change in the last third. Sampha’s style of R&B looks forward, not back, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other R&B musicians have started to take notes.

Despite how fascinating Sampha’s experimentation sounds, it occasionally feels like something’s a bit off. One of the problems is that some of the sounds he’s working with don’t really complement each other. The off-kilter percussion and waves of glistering synth pads on ‘Under’, for example, can’t seem to find a balance with Sampha’s vocals. The whole thing feels a little clumsy, like pieces of a jigsaw that just don’t quite fit together. This was somewhat of a problem on Sampha’s earlier recordings too, but that didn’t seem as big an issue because those EPs and singles felt more like impressionistic sketches than cohesive wholes – now that he’s recording full-length albums, that excuse doesn’t really work anymore.

Unsurprisingly then, some of the best songs on Process are the ones that are the most stripped-down. The barebones ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ is a great reminder of the raw power of Sampha’s voice, while the simple yet unsettling piano riff in ‘Blood On Me’ perfectly matches the track’s frenetic drums and anxious, gasped vocals. Songs like these are proof that Sampha is a talented songwriter even without all the bells and whistles, and it might be nice to hear how he would approach an album of just piano ballads.

Process is, decidedly, not that album, but despite its imperfections, it’s still undeniably impressive. The sounds that Sampha is bringing to the table – though not always executed successfully – are always unique and interesting, and when they do work, they’re dazzling. One highlight is ‘Kora Sings’, whose title refers to the West African lute-like instrument that features prominently throughout the song. Sampha effortlessly combines this more traditional sound with electronic bleeps, frantic drumming and layers of hazy vocal harmonies, creating an airy, kaleidoscopic symphony in the space of four minutes.

Whether you’re an R&B fan or not, Process is absolutely worth your time. Sampha is playing with the boundaries of the genre in a way that very few artists are, and it’s exhilarating to see that kind of creativity at work. Process is a powerful debut, showing that Sampha isn’t afraid of straying from the pack and doing his own thing, and the album is all the better for it.

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