Sampha-Process: Album Review

Sampha has been lurking in the shadows for years as a songwriter and collaborator; Kanye, Frank, and Solange look good on a resume, but this album was Sampha’s chance to jump out into the spotlight.  On all accounts, Process is a victory.  Perfect instrumentals fill every corner of the work from modest piano/voice tracks to risky drum charts and sweeping backing vocals.  Sampha’s words are heartfelt throughout, addressing everything from the importance of his mother, to the tough aspects of relating to one’s family members and a few tunes about overcoming heartbreak.  It’s an emotional journey that also happens to include some early contenders for best single of the year.

There’s hints of narrative on the album.  “Plastic 100°C” and “Blood on Me” begin with general words about fame, before “Kora Sings” and “Like the Piano” focus in on the loss of Sampha’s mother: “You’ve been with me since the cradle…you’re my angel/Please don’t you disappear.”  Sampha further complicates his relationship with his family in mentioning how family encourages people to come together and support each other, but can hinder focusing on self-care and mental health: “But with family, I/I don’t have the time/The time to be questioning life.”  This also comes through with “no one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home” as music and songwriting is truly how Sampha expresses himself in the world.  Obviously Sampha doesn’t express any disdain for his family here, but he adds depth to the relationship by discussing his own troubles with truly being himself.

The next five songs mostly focus on different stages of a break up.  “Take Me Inside” ponders a significant other that’s moved on “Does he still make your blood rush/These days I’m just not sure how to feel,” before “Reverse Faults” contemplates some of Sampha’s shortcomings.  He admits that he’s a tough person to love and harps on his tendency to push people away when their relationship gets serious.  “Under” contrasts with Sampha placing more of the blame on his ex: “Sophisticated bitter queen/You’re the ghost in my machine/I wonder, sit and watch you wonder/I see you manipulate your lover,” then he comes to terms with the relationship on “Timmy’s Prayer” and reflects on “Incomplete Kisses”: “Don’t let your heart hide your story/Don’t let your mind hide your story/’Cause if you deny others inside/It gets harder to move along.”  It’s great to hear such a cohesive story behind the varying sonic colors and Sampha’s development in character from track to track makes the album an unstoppable force.

As stated, the instrumentals really couldn’t be much better. “Blood on Me” is the danceable single that offers a lot of replay value.  Then you’ve got some serious tear-jerking material on “Like the Piano.”  Sampha’s falsetto offers an effortless delicacy that fills each word to the brim with meaning, but he also has the potential to soar over cutting toms like on “Kora Sings.”  Speaking of, “Kora” is probably the most unique sonic piece on record.  We open with haunting melodies and vocals with plucked strings offering a biting texture.  The chorus comes together with some rigid synths deep in the background complemented by this lingering flute melodic line underlying the powerful hook.  It complements the heavy emotional nature of the lyrics with a tense drive.

The second half of the record continues to offer single-worthy hits with “Incomplete Kisses” and “Reverse Faults.” On the former, brooding synths beckon in icy keyboard stabs making for an unsettling verse before the beat drop at the front of each chorus finds a blissful state as Sampha journeys out on the road.  Considering that this track is about his relationship with his significant other and how every time they get closer he pushes her away, the sonic material drives home the juxtaposition between that which Sampha feels at home and that which he finds in driving away on his own.  “Incomplete Kisses” finally settles all the baggage on the record as Sampha croons out all the lessons he learned in the relationship over a playful bassline and bright acoustic piano within the electronic landscape.

Noting offerings from Solange and Frank from last year—and even looking back a bit further to FKA Twiggs—it’s clear that neo-soul is still home to some of the best songwriters out there.  With Process, Sampha certainly earns his spot in the conversation.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

 

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