Review Summary: Just buy it!
Something’s been bugging me recently. In the run-up to Sampha’s debut album Process
, one of, if not the, most remarked upon thing is that he produced and featured on two Drake
songs, that he helped Solange
cobble together her best song, that he produced for Beyonce
and FKA twigs
without even asking for credit. Relevant as all this may be in showcasing his versatility and ubiquity, it does a piss-poor job of conveying the true emotional heft of his work or even of really telegraphing his unique skills and vulnerabilities. So let me just say this at the top: Sampha is, first and foremost, a medium. That’s not to say he doesn’t possess his own traits or strengths, he definitely
does. But his music is simultaneously old and new. Old in that he channels familiar emotions and sentiments like loss, anxiety, heartbreak, and depression into beautifully poetic packages that are both singular and infinitely relatable. But his work is distinctly new in how easily it synthesizes disparate elements that otherwise wouldn’t go together into tightly woven and gloriously experimental treatments. Process
showcases just how absolutely riveting these most abstract experiments can be.
To be fair, Sampha’s work isn’t exactly unprecedented. But what’s so stunning about Process
is how it so effortlessly skirts easy comparison. You can see some of the stylistic threads from artists like James Blake
and Oneohtrix Point Never
here (the almost kitsche-y synths of “What Shouldn’t I Be?,” the skittering percussion on “Reverse Faults”), but the songs themselves never sound like pale imitations of other artists. Many of Sampha’s tricks are criminally underutilized in modern pop music, and his willingness to embrace them belies his studio genius. His open embrace of found-sounds and samples, his unconventional vocal panning (sometimes his vocals dart all across the left and right channels, and it’s awesome!
), his expert integration of distinctly digital sounds like synths and more analog elements like piano, guitar, and his voice all point to a studio nerd who slavishly tinkered with the mixes until they achieved the perfect emotional impact.
But none of that studio trickery would matter if the content of the album was poor. But luckily for us, Sampha’s years of living and writing for others has helped him to hone his lyrical voice into something distinctive. His lyrics never seem forced or pretentious, but they do possess a certain poetry to them. Opener “Plastic 100˚C” features this beauty: “thriving off your lessons, yes you are my lantern/A shy light comes around my ears/The more you speak, the more I see.” On “Reverse Fault,” he recontextualizes the oft-abused car wreck metaphor as an analogue not for the dissolution of a relationship, but instead for his own complicity in it. The car crashed, yes, but it’s because he willfully removed the brakes, pressed on the gas, and then knowingly blamed his significant other for the resulting accident. “I smashed this window in my heart/And I blamed you.” Sampha possesses a deft hand for lyrics, regularly subverting and skirting cliché in favor of something more apt. Despite being stuffed with context, emotion, and narrative, his lyrics read more like slight poetry than dense prose, and it’s from this poetry that Process
draws most of its power. And that power is undoubtedly amplified by the revelation that is Sampha’s voice.
I know this may be hyperbolic as all hell, but it bears acknowledging: Sampha’s voice alone could have made this album worthwhile. He possesses everything that classicists desire in a “Voice”: strength, emotion, versatility. He can go from breathy to belting in the space of a verse, and he never sounds strained in a bad
way (the breathlessness on single “Blood On Me,” with its lyrics about outrunning anxiety and dealing with a breakdown, seems more a conscious thematic decision than an oversight or fault of dexterity). On “Timmy’s Prayer,” his exasperation with himself comes to a head when he exclaims “I ***ed up” in the song’s bridge. It’s the one instance of profanity on the album, and it’s wrought with power, thanks in large part to how Sampha enunciates the word at exactly the moment that the reverb falls away, and the stuttering drums stall. The vocal processing and production here is also of note, as Sampha’s voice emerges from the cloud of reverb and gating for what is pretty much the first time. His vocals are often very warm and close, lending his more intimate performances an emotional weight that is near-impossible to describe with words. Simply put, songs like “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano…” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?” embody the word “elegiac” to a T, and in doing so achieve the funereal sorrow that other artists spend their entire career drinking and drugging to attain.
For an album called Process
, there’s surprisingly little that seems undercooked or unfinished here. Even the most skeletal of the songs here possess a fullness and completion to them (maybe it’s the impeccable chord voicing, which lends his songs the harmonic completion often associated with hymnals and gospel songs) that would make extra bits and bobs feel superfluous. In terms of faults, there’s not much to critique here. Some people may be disappointed to find that most of the songs lack the immediacy of “Blood on Me” or some of Sampha’s collaborations. And anyone who found LP1
or The Colour In Anything
to be pretentious or overwrought will almost definitely not fully enjoy this album (although they’ll definitely walk away loving some of the tracks). But that’s besides the point. Process
is an achievement. It’s powerful like few albums in recent memory, with an emotional complexity that, if given the chance, anyone can relate to.