FEBRUARY: Sampha – Process

I first heard Sampha’s “who IS this?!” talents on this very blog, back in 2014, on “Wonder Where We Land?”. It wasn’t an album I really thought was my thing, and even on fifth listen, let alone first, it felt too odd, too patchwork, to take hold. But it did, and it was the incredible “Gon Stay” that pulled me in. But that, despite coming back to the album over the next two years, was all I encountered of the South Londoner until now. Having encountered “Process”, I feel a little foolish for this now.

But if it’s a debut album that’s taken a while to land, then it’s every bit the reward for being teased out. And while it’s a cliche, it’s more than just about the music here, as mesmerising as it is. These days we crave ‘story’, but the tale behind a work for an artist that’s worked with the likes of Drake, Solange, Frank Ocean and Kanye is one worth touching on, because it frames the album like an unseen assistant, a shadow over the lyrics and music that can’t be ignored. The Morden resident was a nascent musician as a child, but his adult life has been pockmarked by tragedy, his existence moving from single parent – his father Joe died of lung cancer in 1998 – to orphaned son, as his mother passed away from the same disease in 2015 in between his second EP and the album’s release.

It’s easy to talk of emotion and candour in music, such is the ubiquity of artists on social media, baring their souls (in 140 characters at a time) but Process feels exactly as that single word befits: a young man coming to terms with his place in the world as he comes to terms with love, life and loss in modern, isolating city life. His own health scares also sit behind the words of the record, and time and again the emotions are front and centre, with that incredible voice not slotting into others’ productions, but acting as another instrument in itself, and sounding the most powerful and piercing that it has yet. “Blood On Me” is a beautiful record, its staccato beats echoing modern hip-hop, but the piano’s chords carry punch, and the words speak of a man spinning close to the edge of control.

In fact, the feeling is one of boundary-free music, with Sampha’s soul pouring out unrestrained, even as the clever time signatures of “Kora Sings” or the simple arrangements of “Take Me Inside” cascade into multi-tracked synth and vox like a burst of of colour, despite the darkness of many of the lyrics. The pace may often be slow, but the energy and heft is always there, and even at first listen it’s a beguiling proposition. And for all the tales of suffering and anguish, the truth is that beneath all of it is a hugely talented musician.

The reviews are stellar, because the album has all the makings of a modern classic. A man whose career has been stop-start, halted by tragic episodes that may be the making of him. From all the heartache often comes the best music, and this is a stunning piece of work from a new British artist we should cherish.

6 comments

  1. misterstory

    Hi Guy. Thanks for a great write-up my friend and of course thank you for the album. I am listening to it as I write this.

    Its probably best to consider this a first reactions review that I will add more too. I come to this album with some baggage. We’ve had both SBTRKT albums on this blog (or its predecessor) and Sampha has featured on both. His tracks were my least Favorite tracks on two albums that I didn’t like. Not a great start. I found his melodies meandering and feeble and the lyrics were not much better in my opinion. So I was a little apprehensive on my first listen. I had read a few reviews which spoke to the sadness that has been experienced by Sampha in his life. I knew the story and was interested to hear how this came across. I think it comes across very reflectively and passionately … in a very laid back kind of way. I will admit I am not 100% sure that I like his voice but this is not causing me the kind of issues that I was expecting. There are some cracking songs on this album. (No one knows me) Like the piano …. is stunning. I could listen to it all day. Its the track that suits his voice the best in my opinion. I assume that the piano used is either (i) that piano (ii) purposefully beat up and knackered to convey the lyrics!?

    Some other observations;

    – Is the 1st half stronger than the 2nd half or is that I have listened to the 1st half more at this stage?
    – Nice length / number of tracks (call me old fashioned by 10x 4(ish) minute tracks feels right!)
    – Its not great background music
    – I should probably re-visit the SBTRKT tracks
    – I’ve not heard ‘Alabama’ with Frank Ocean but will seek it out

    Great choice. Still working through my feelings on it but largely positive.

  2. whyohwhyohwhy

    Cheers for the lengthy first-up review Brother Joseph, what’s holding up the rest of you then! 😉

    I get a lot of what you say. I think the first half grabs me more, but so much of this is often a symptom of my commute being 30 mins and so I don’t really get the chance to listen to much longer than that. I do agree that the second half doesn’t stand out as much (yet) either, but I’m only about 5 or 6 listens in. I think his voice is very striking, and if you’re into it you love it, and if you’re not, then it may take some getting over. But given his own room to breathe, I think he’s definitely found his voice, and there’s some neat variation, even if the second half slows down a touch, and perhaps loses a bit of momentum.

    But Blood On Me has really grabbed me. It’s been a proper ear worm (cowbell of any sort, as per), and there’s a lot musically to love. But it’s an album I feel I need to know lyrically, given its poignancy, but I find myself so often struggling to isolate listening all to myself. Perils of a modern music lover….

  3. David Allison

    I am LOVING this. Want to spend a bit more time with it before I post a review, but it’s really getting under my skin.
    Tell you a really weird influence I’m hearing – a 4AD sound, in particular This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance and even a bit of Cocteau Twins. No, I’m not sure why either, but it keeps popping into my head.

    More soon!

  4. nolankane706

    It’s tough not to reference Sampha without SBTRKT, and i’m going to drive in straight away. The element I initially didn’t warm to with SBTRKT was Sampha. Who was this dude, and was he singing in key? With time he grew on me and I now love all the tracks he has been on. Perhaps from the get go I wanted SBTRKT and because I didn’t get that I’ve struggled to get into Sampha on his own. This in-turn lead to me diving in and out over the last few weeks. Finally last week I was in the car for a vast amount of time and really got stuck into this album which I needed to.

    It wasn’t until I had had the album on repeat a few times that I started feeling there were stand out tracks and what they were. Much like brother Joey it’s in the first half of the album. Though Reverse Faults has become a stand out for me so maybe the second half of the album just takes a bit longer to grow on you.

    ‘Like A Piano’ is plainly a wonderful song. We all need a song like this in our lives. It’s a perfect example of why I have always love Sampha, his honestly of lyrics and the pure soul in the way he expresses himself when he sings.

    Is there room for improvement? Yes I think he has much better albums in him, but this one is pretty good!

  5. Paul Adderson

    I came to this one without any knowledge of Sampha, his background or even his collaborations and guest spots. I couldn’t name a SBTRKT song and so I literally had no reference points. This is one of the ace things about being involved in this project is being exposed to music that just isn’t on my radar. So, turning to this offering from Brother Guy (fantastic words, by the way… an excellent review) and it’s a strange one and I’m struggling to put my finger on what I think of it. I’ve listened to this a great deal on repeat over the last few weeks and there are a couple of moments of that made me sit up – Like a Piano shines in its simplicity and layered vocals. So finely crafted but I almost would have preferred a version stripped back with just him and the keys.

    But overall, I think it could have done with some more variation, as too much bleeds in and out and almost feels a bit… beige on occasion. Blood on Me at the start feels like we’re in for some gritty tales of adventure but he doesn’t quite manage to hit that level again. I like songs with story, something to pull me in if the music isn’t quite doing it. A late highlight is Incomplete Kisses but by the time we’re at the end of Sampha’s night, the lights come on and I’m left thinking that there could have been so much more. Perhaps I should go and investigate the SBTRKT collaboration(s?) to see what the hype was about which led us to this point. You know what? I think I’ll go and do just that.

  6. David Allison

    I’ve become a big fan of this album. Each listen reveals a bit more, and it’s got a surprising amount of depth and diversity. A lot of downbeat soulful electronica of this kind gets VERY samey. He’s got a wide palette and makes for a really engaging listen.

    I know the 4AD/Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil reference might seem leftfield, but I can’t get it out of my head for some reason.
    But if you listen to either of these, perhaps it makes more sense.


    The other shadow being cast on here is from 90s trip-hop (yes, I know everyone hates the tag). Massive Attack and Portishead in particular. Also actually reminds of Massive Attack collaborator Shara Nelson. I had a really underrated solo album of hers called Friendly Fire from about 95. Here’s a track:

    So I guess what I’m saying is, there’s nothing new under the sun about this album, and it is funny how downbeat electronica (if that’s what we’re calling most of this) has never really shaken off their 90s originators. But it’s hard to do this stuff well, and there is something unique both about his voice and his approach. My Piano is obviously an absolute stand-out and perhaps will be a song for the ages. But Blood on Me and Take Me Inside are both crackers too. Perhaps if I have a criticism, it’s that the album runs out of steam in the second half.

    I think this could be the start of something special from Sampha, though, and I’ll certainly be watching his next move.

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