Sampha grapples with loss, identity on mesmerizing debut ‘Process’

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Sampha Process | Young Turks
Grade: A

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Sampha’s career was built on asking big questions. Leading up to the release of Process, his debut album, the British singer served as a moral litmus test for other musicians, posing interior reflections for the already-introspective Frank Ocean (“What can I do to know you better?” he asks on the Endless cut “Alabama”) and adding reinforcement to Solange Knowles’ quiet riot (“What you say to me?” he duets with Knowles on the almighty “Don’t Touch My Hair”).

Sampha rose through the ranks of the British electronic underground, collaborating with rising acts such as SBTRKT and Lil Silva and ultimately making his stateside debut on a couple of Drake cuts. Sampha now stands on the pedestal as the resident piper of the R&B and rap elite, and it’s not hard to see why. His voice oozes with pathos, a gripping, versatile thing that’s bathed with erstwhile weariness.

He made it this far on his own, but Sampha’s origin story is one of familial tethers. In 2015, Sampha’s mother passed away from cancer — right after his honeyed voice made a name for itself outside of their small London suburb. Grief is messy, but it’s remarkable how composed Sampha sounds as he sings these dirges.

Devastating and ruminative, Process is a magnificent debut showing for the British singer and producer. It’s a soul opus that ties strands of a torn, grieving state into an outward and beautiful composite — a work that guides through grief with equal calm and tumult.

Throughout Process, Sampha vacillates between extremes: life and death, digital and analog, the astral and the corporeal. Here, he doesn’t ask too many questions as he digs into his own personal quandaries, but he doesn’t really resolve any of the conflict in his heart, either.

On album standout “Kora Sings,” tears flow onto the pillow as Sampha wishes for a torrential downpour to mirror his loss. When you process grief, the feeling of existential dread happens as its own force of nature.

Sampha’s lyrics are both all too familiar and nonspecific at once. His remembrance of his mother is compounded with vivid images — blood-red skies, scorching suns, glitched-out televisions. It’s as if by describing his in heavy-set strokes, he can make his loss more palatable.

Consider the Neil Armstrong-sampling opening track “Plastic 100°C,” in which he likens himself to a spacecraft dissolving under heat and pressure as he unpacks a repository of memory attached to his upbringing. His body, above all else, is used as conduit for the feeling of whiplash. Immediately after the space-driven surrealism of “Plastic” is “Blood on Me,” a grief-induced anxiety attack turned apocalyptic, leaden and earthly and lonely all at once. On “Take Me Inside,” he croons as his familiar piano-vocal harmonies distort into anonymous hymnals and electronica drone.

The production, largely handled by XL label in-house producer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Adele) and Sampha himself, is crystalline and stunning. It’s less anonymous and less pretty than his last drop, the table-setting Dual EP. He’ll veer outside of his familiar soul surroundings to snake into something outright experimental. On “Reverse Faults,” Sampha’s emotional discord manifests in a a glitch-laden, almost trap-like melody, where each blip stands in for an instance of cognitive dissonance-via-heartbreak.

Sampha is at his best when he’s at his most direct; “Timmy’s Prayer” achieves both. It was the first glimpse of the fledgling Process, a stunner that, without any context of Sampha’s rise, resonates like a lover’s plea. “I messed up; I know now,” he sings, unveiling his collected mien to show a man learning to cope.

By the time Process finishes off, Sampha poses his only question: “What Shouldn’t I Be?” It’s a bookend that’s still riddled with complications. Sampha contemplates coming home only to find that home will follow him in perpetuity. “Family ties,” he falsettos over bubbling keys. “Put them ’round my neck.”

He’s resolute, grounded and still grieving. But it’s all a process, one that we’re better off for witnessing.

Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected]. Tweet him at @joshuaboat.