We’ve expected Sampha‘s debut album for years. He released his debut EP back in 2010 and followed it up with another excellent release in 2013 on Young Turks. Following that, he featured on Drake’s Too Good and became a go-to for anguished hip-hop tracks. Instead of capitalising on that, however, he disappeared. Bar a few features, the guy who was meant to be one of the Sounds Of 2014 according to the BBC was nowhere to be seen. It’s 2017 now and the British soul singer has re-emerged and his debut Process holds all the answers surrounding his disappearance.
Sampha could’ve done anything with his debut album. He could’ve pulled Drake in for guest features, made Kanye executive produce it and asked Beyoncé to sing backup. He’s done none of that though. He enlisted Young Turks in-house engineer Rodaidh McDonald to produce it with him and made something that’s humble and genuine. Sampha wasn’t just being lazy when he left the spotlight and failed to drop a debut album when expected. He was battling with the weight of his rising profile and also moved home in 2014 to care for his mother who later died from cancer.
He became her caretaker and would only make music when she was in the hospital and he had a break at home. Instead of writing dark, sad music he used music to empathise with his Mum and also come to terms with his own family. His mother’s illness isn’t the obvious centrepiece of the record but he deals with it beautifully on fragile yet hopeful ballad (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. Music is a companion for Sampha, an antidote for loneliness. “You took care of me and never, ever let me go,” he sings to the piano, bringing warmth to a devastating situation.
Music as a companion and a way of interpreting his own feelings is the biggest takeaway from that song and an integral part of understanding this record. As much as he’s done, Sampha is still only a 28 year-old guy who is dealing with social anxieties and questions of who he should be. His innovative, accessible production and weathered voice could make you think he’s wise beyond his years but that’s not what he’s out to prove on Process. He’s an imperfect human being on Process, not claiming to know where he’s going.
The beginning of the record harnesses Sampha’s anxiety. On Plastic 100°, the world is closing in on him. Yet, like many of the track here, Sampha is optimistic. “I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun,” he sings. The notion of heat appears again on Kora Sings as he sings, “It’s just me in the burning sun.” Over a Middle Eastern-flavoured beat he comes to terms with his mother’s illness, telling her, “Please don’t you disappear.” Still, there’s an optimism held in the light production, suggesting if she disappears, she won’t truly be gone.
Blood On Me has him running from things over a breathy, intense beat that gives very little relief. It feels like the chest is tight and everything is sweaty – pinpointing the height of anxiety, where you begin to feel boxed in. Sampha’s genius lies in the way he’s been able to interpret his own emotions and spill them back out within the soundscapes. Each one is so vivid that most listeners will feel just about every emotion he did.
Process is such a powerful album title because it acknowledges that there’s work still to be done. Given the heavy few years he had, you’d forgive him for feeling sorry for himself but instead he’s self-examining. On Reverse Faults he admits that he works through his wrongs before asking, “Now can we move along?” Once again, on Timmy’s Prayer he sings, “I messed up,” but instead of whinging the song elevates into a twinkling finale, moving into the light.
It’s appropriate the album ends on a question What Shouldn’t I Be? Sampha never claims to have all the answers and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is for anyone in their 20s who is figuring out how to have a career, embrace their individuality and be a good friend, brother, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, son and daughter. Process is all about accepting that sometimes you’re going to be selfish, anxious and out of touch but also moving forward. It’s such a poignant and expressive time stamp of where Sampha is in his life right now that we can only hope we get to keep growing with him because while we all may experience similar emotions, few of us can express it as vividly as him.