Some voices are unmistakable from the moment you ever hear them. Sampha has one of those—a gorgeous, sandy soprano that wallows in the middle and smokes at the top. It’s sultry yet filled with doubt and heartbreak: achingly lonely by itself, it still balloons when in harmony.
And for years, the voice has overshadowed any artistry that the man might possess. He’s been dropped into Kanye, Drake, and Jessie Ware songs as some sort of emotional signifier: so expansive and acrobatic, it can take on any meaning the headliners need it to.
“Process,” Sampha’s debut album, is his effort to take his voice back, and push his production talent to the fore. But as the title suggests, this isn’t so much a self-definition as fragments of a young artist learning to grieve and weaponize his talent at the same time. The result is ghostly: there’s something missing, but it’s mesmerizing nonetheless.
Sampha’s mother passed away in 2015, and he made this album in the midst and aftermath of caring for her at the hospital. The album isn’t driven by catharsis, though, but rather quiet anguish. “Sleeping with my worries,” he confesses on the opener, “Plastic 100°C.” Synth risers, a pounding bass drum and open-ended melodic phrases beg for a huge drop, but it never arrives. Instead, Sampha adds echoing bells and piano plinks around the edges. They produce a clenched feeling bordering on repression.
While other artists might ride their strong suit through their debut album, Sampha actually under-utilizes his voice. His soprano often turns wispy, as if an engineer has lopped off the bottom half of his voice, and sounds far less like a concert-ready star than the best possible version of a dude nursing a hangover after a night of heavy drinking. On songs like ”Reverse Faults” and “Kora Sings,” his voice is besieged by a hailstorm of swirling instrumentation: silky harp-like pads, polyrhythmic drum loops, trebly flutters.
“Kora Sings” is strangest of the bunch, showing both the wonderment and pitfalls of his approach. The jittery tom-tom groove provides an infectious pulse, but fails to coalesce with the strained synthesizers and weepy lyrical content. He fares better on “Under,” which leaves plenty of space for his voice to appear convincingly in two iterations: as the beleaguered lead, and the robotic, hypnotic backups.
When the going gets too murky, Sampha returns time and again to the acoustic piano, which acts as a salve and a shoulder to cry on. He’s an imperfect but expressive pianist, with a touch reminiscent of Joni Mitchell: the harmonies are rich, but the overall effect is still somehow one of desolation. On “No One Knows Me Like the Piano” and “Take Me Inside,” Sampha slightly rushes through his rolling arpeggios, omitting the damper pedal so as to let his clusters fade quickly. The piano is a bit out of tune, and the hot microphone picks up each thump of the keystroke. But all the imperfections make the sound more tactile, intimate and vulnerable.
If you’re looking for a visceral explosion of agony, it only comes once. “Blood on Me” is a terrifying plea from a man in peril: in the music video, hounds sprint after Sampha through lush fields, with iconography reminiscent of slave-catching narratives. And Sampha’s urgent, distorted vocals are filled with a brutal pathos. But still, the track below is oddly placid. The static pads sit uncomfortably, like a Rothko painted with blood and oil. They leave a feeling of numbness, and inevitable loss.
All of this inconsistency and discomfort make “Process” flicker with life. Sampha leaves his roots exposed, confident that his attitude, micro-gestures, and daring experiments in form will convey more about him than any over-the-top showmanship.