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Review: Sampha Finds Beauty Within the Process

In prior interviews, Sampha Sisay made it clear that he was content with being a supporting player, a lane in which he proved himself reliable. Guest spots on songs like Drake’s “Too Much” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” were accentuated by the sanguine humanity in his British, lilting singing voice that hovers above silent prayer. His finite range managed to locate the endpoint of a boyish naivete, the moment where happiness is no longer a neutral state but a respite to be fought for.

Despite this naturally reserved quality, his debut album, Process, proves that a tempered wistfulness is ripe for lead material. Though the album title can be taken as a nod to the artistic process, the project concerns itself with the immeasurable distance between pain and acceptance of an end goal foisted upon you by the universe. Sampha’s mother, Binty Sisay, passed away from cancer in 2015, and his father was taken by the same cruelty in 1998. He’s also been dealing with a mysterious lump in his throat that’s remained undiagnosed by doctors (“Every time I swallow, I feel it,” he told Nylon).

“It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here,” he chants on opener “Plastic 100°C,” a spry rumination on mortality that directly references the lump, as an angelic arrangement slows into the waking world. The time spent travailing this comedown is a recurring theme throughout the album—it’s melancholic, yes, but it’s a compelling reckoning with how things are. He’s separated from some of his R&B peers, fellows who douse themselves with sorrow and express their angst through detached, self-centered screeds obsessed with how things should be. Sampha, meanwhile, has an uncanny ability to eloquently express the painful facts of life that we learn to internalize.

The distances that Sampha sings of might’ve been communicated by a lesser singer through obtuse melodrama, but he’s a confident enough songwriter to place himself in the center of the mix. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is a dedication to his mother written from his childhood home’s piano, but the ballad manages to spin a universal experience out of a pointed reference. That piano becomes a memento, and the separation of mother and son becomes a lucid heartache (“They said that it’s her time, no tears in sight / I kept the feelings close”). The propulsively melodic “Kora Sings” appeals to something as basic as human touch—“We don’t have to talk / I just need you here”—as a way of navigating that distance.

Wanting someone’s presence isn’t the most original sentiment, but even when the literary songwriting threatens to be hackneyed, the compositions—airy and efficient—give his confessionals needed sinew. The oceanic imagery on “Under” might read as cliche if it wasn’t underscored by the nefarious bass line. “Timmy’s Prayer” features a versatile Sampha switching between exasperated whispers and God-blaming shouts, but it turns superhuman when it accelerates toward a kaleidoscopic melody in its back half, a payoff for tense restraint.

But what makes Process exceptional is its delicate focus on relationships corroded and fissured by time and unintentional neglect. Even blood becomes unrecognizable, as life forks where it will. You want to believe those bonds are mended by as something as simple as a phone call, but those cracks widen just as easily, a realization that makes the closing two songs a gut punch. The penultimate “Incomplete Kisses,” the project’s most straightforward anthem, proclaims “‘if you deny others inside it gets to harder to belong,” as if you could simply hold on to significant others by reaching out when it was convenient. “What Would I Be?” is the bleary eyed rejoinder: “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months.” He sings “you can always come home” as if he’s referring to an idyll instead of a physical, reachable place. There are no answers to this longing—only catharsis.