You’d be hard pressed to find someone with a resume as impressive as Sampha’s over the past half-decade that doesn’t even have a full-length LP to their name. From stealing the show on songs with Drake and Kanye to writing for Solange and Frank Ocean, Sampha has seen some pretty famous friends. Outside of a handful of features on SBTRKT’s albums and two solo EPs, Sampha has always been shining in the shadows. With Process, the singer’s debut project, it was finally time for him to shine on his own. The album has been in the making for quite some time now and carries with it rather lofty expectations. As more time passed with no debut album, so did the assumption that he was going to deliver a masterpiece whenever he inevitably did let people hear what he was creating. Expectations can be dangerous, especially when coupled with time. Whether Sampha could deliver would be determined with his debut.
The album opens with ‘Plastic 100°C’, a song that was previously released in a live rooftop version. On that version, Sampha’s voice took center stage and the studio version is no different. About halfway through, the song crescendos and reaches a high before stripping back down to just the singer. It’s a beautiful moment and a bold start to the album. As ‘Plastic’’s distant signals fade, they are replaced by the rolling drums of ‘Blood on Me’. The sense of urgency that Sampha possesses throughout this song is equivalent to an edge of your seat chase scene in a thriller. That there are moments where he audibly loses his breath only add to the songs’ effect. The song comes to an abrupt end almost as if he escapes who or whatever is chasing him just as the doors of a train close. While there are no true crossover moments on the album, lead single ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ almost tricks unknowing listeners by being just catchy enough for that recognition. The subtle ebbs and flows contained in ‘Prayer’’s four-and-a-half-minute runtime reveal new layers with each subsequent listen. ‘Incomplete Kisses’ is similar in that it feels like one of the album’s more straightforward songs initially. The melody weaves its way into your subconscious and you’d be hard pressed to let it escape as it becomes one of the album’s most accessible songs. In a more perfect world, songs such as the aforementioned would top the billboard charts.
You can talk about the lyrics, the melodies or even the production of this album, and while they all stand tall on their own merits, it’s Sampha’s voice that really deserves praise above all. From the moment most of the world was introduced to his vocals during a live performance of Drake’s single ‘Too Much’ on Jimmy Fallon, it was clear that his voice was special. With just a piano and his aching voice, he beautifully set the stage for Drake on the late-night show. Sampha delivers similar moments on Processand they end up not only being the most personal songs on the album, but also the best. The prime example of this is a song that features nothing but Sampha’s voice and his piano. The song, appropriately titled ‘No One Knows Me (Like the Piano)’, features the singer detailing the relationship he has with the instrument that allows him to express his talent the best. There’s a certain pain that lives within Sampha’s voice and the more stripped down the song, the more beautiful that pain becomes. ‘Piano’ can act as a parallel for many things: Childhood, fading memories, death, etc. With an album full of moments that almost knock you off your feet, ‘Piano’ is the moment that will leave you floored. Similar moments of stripped down pain live on Process as well. Whether it’s the brisk ‘Take Me Inside’ or ‘What Shouldn’t I Be’, which closes the album with tales of loss, moments like these are gorgeous displays of Sampha’s vocal ability. ‘Shouldn’t’ finds his voice stuck in a haunting falsetto for the duration of the song. The song slips away like a ghost dissipating into the night and as it does, so does the album.
Whether Sampha’s debut album could live up to its massive expectations was the worry of many after such a long wait for it. After listening, the fact that we ever doubted him becomes apparent. In just ten tracks, Sampha has managed to take us on an emotional roller coaster. What surprises us is the range and diversity that encompass the tracks embedded in the album. Those who thought Sampha was a one trick pony only capable of strong piano ballads will be pleasantly surprised by Process. That Sampha, an uber talented musician and singer, stayed in the background for so long all kind of makes sense now. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the spotlight but more so that he was content not being in it. With Process Sampha proves that knowing when it’s your time to shine is almost as important as shining. Process was exactly what its title suggests, and its timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Repeatable: ‘No One Knows Me (Like the Piano)’, ‘Plastic 100°C’, ‘Blood On Me’, ‘Timmy’s Prayer’, ‘Incomplete Kisses’
By Scott Evans