This chap you’ve probably never heard of has worked with all of the major current pop/hip-hop/R&B powerhouses: Beyoncé, Solange, Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean to name a few you just might know.
Sampha is a singer, songwriter, and producer from London, and appears to be an innately modest man despite this triple-edged sabre of talent. He’s been on the scene for over a decade, beefing up tracks by the above artists and many others, his voice usually bringing unmistakeable shades of melancholy to the mix. See particularly ‘Saint Pablo’ and ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, songs greatly enriched by his quiet presence. Yet it’s taken until now for him to record a full-length album, a sign of his humble approach to music, perhaps.
Or maybe the reason is simpler – in recent years he’s suffered health scares (a lump in his throat that pops up in ‘Plastic 100ºC’) and unexpectedly became the primary caregiver to his mother, who passed away from cancer in 2015. These and the more commonplace relationship struggles to afflict young men are the main topics of concern on Process, a promising debut that whispers of greater talent to come.
Unlike Frank Ocean’s Blonde, to which this has been compared, Sampha is unafraid of using plentiful electronic beats to spice up his productions, and doesn’t have an allergy to melody either. This and his warm vocals, pitted against each other at various points with a multitracking that he knows does nothing to reduce his artistry, are the entry points to this album. It is rarely difficult to listen to, despite its weighty themes.
I like nearly everything about the man who shines through – the openness, the caring nature (even for lovers after they’re gone), the pained and oh so human need to share with everyone the process of his grief. He is sometimes too dour in tackling broken romances, which as Drake should know from the heavily panned Views can invite ridicule. Lines like ‘You struck a chord and I listened/You damn near broke all the strings’ from ‘Reverse Faults’ are clever but a touch overstated. Only a touch though, and for the most part he deftly avoids the maudlin melodrama of too much R&B balladry.
Elvis Costello once said that in order to decide whether an album was special: ‘play track 4 – it is usually the one you want.’ So it proves to be on Process: ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ was the point at which I knew for sure that Sampha was more than just hype. The solo piano ballad is a particularly treacherous testing ground for artists because it can so easily invite ridiculous, self-satirising displays of over-emoting. Yet Sampha passes the self-imposed test with flying colours: he keeps his voice as contained as the melody, drawing attention to the words he sings rather than the virtuosity of the vocal approach, which is quietly apparent anyway. The next four words after the title are ‘in my mother’s home’, and her absence is painfully felt in the spareness of this composition. The effect of the whole is utterly heartbreaking.
Other tracks are wilder and show off his range – ‘Blood on Me’ is about grey hoodied creatures chasing Sampha through a bizarre dream world, and operates on a trap beat and bass distortions in its coda to play off this paranoia. ‘Under’ uses its title as a looped hook, which sometimes turns into ‘thunder’ and becomes less hooky and more menacing quicker than you would expect. ‘Take Me Inside’ starts off as yet another piano ballad but gets lost by its end in a magical, dreamy synth world.
Sampha’s creativity is restless, and if he hasn’t quite got it fully under control yet (the second half of the album is less gripping than the first), what other R&B artist would have the guts to concede at the end of his debut album ‘it’s not all about me’?
His mother would be proud.