Very few artists can admit to have had the privilege of collaborating with the A-list cream-of-the-crop of US pop, R&B and hip-hop, from achieving guest-spots with the likes of Drake, Kanye, and even Frank Ocean himself, to claiming a hefty presence on Solange’s acclaimed 2016 release, ‘A Seat at the Table’. In fact, you could say that South London producer and multi-instrumentalist Sampha Sisay has spent more of his recent time committed to some of modern R&Bs most remarkably innovating records than working on his own debut. But after nearly half a decade in the game and 7 years following the release of his breakthrough outing, ‘Sundanza’, Sampha has unveiled his astonishingly moving debut album, ‘Process’, a record that takes the listener on a restless journey of self-discovery, grief and regret that carries you deep into the 28 year olds troubled psyche. Your chosen vehicle? Bubbling ‘neo-soul’, brimming with lush orchestration and crisp drumbeats, all revolving round Sampha’s crooning falsetto. It’s peculiarly structured R&B for the dancehall generation, or should that be the other way round.
Surprisingly, you could be more familiar with Sampha than you would think. Sisay has been almost entirely involved in one way or the other in the affairs of fellow London native, Aaron Jerome’s glitch-y post-dubstep project SBTRKT.But despite the ‘club-friendly’ attitudes of his contemporaries, ‘Process’ is no mere party record. Look deeper, and it’s so much more than that.
The grandiose ‘Plastic 100oC’ crackles into life in a whirr of space-age bleeps and static, accompanied by floating string arrangements and a subtle piano piece. It’s a compelling listen that sees Sampha’s honest anxiety surrounding his health bleed through in a blur of outer space references – “You touched down in the base of my fears, Houston can-can-can you hear?”
Illness, grief and fear are recurring themes on ‘Process’, heard in the pulsating and claustrophobic trap-beats of ‘Reverse Faults’, which allude to the singer’s own struggling relationships as a sort of ‘car accident’ and on the afro-beat patchwork of ‘Kora Sings’. Here, skittering percussion and jumpy synths toy with natural imagery, as Sampha details his thoughts on troubled family relationships. It completely re-imagines the possibilities of dance music, and whilst the tempo seems somewhat off-kilter and the melody isn’t the most memorable, it’s certainly something you could bop to.
Elsewhere, Sampha very openly bares his emotions, none more so than on the utterly stunning and equally tear jerking, ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’. The song features a stunning dance between a simplistic, and raw piano motif and Sampha’s tender vocal harmonies, overlaying sparse, recoiled electronics. It’s here that Sisay pours all feeling over these keys. It’s almost like an ode to the instrument that has shaped his life so amply, however I grasp that it’s also something of an address to Sampha’s late mother, the only leading figure in his life – “You would show me I have something people call a soul…oh you arrived when I was three years old”, he broods. Unusually for me, it’s the standout moment in ‘Process’, showcasing Sampha’s strikingly emotive vocal talents and playing down the instrumentals for something truly honest. It’s perfect for quiet reflection on a golden Sunday morning.
Perhaps what characterizes ‘Process’ however is Sampha’s ability to balance light and shade so elegantly. ‘Blood on Me’ serves as perhaps his most club-ready anthem yet, revolving around a stifling ‘90s trip-hop beat and an addictive almost pop-like chorus worthy of his most high-profile collaborators. Beneath the rich, textured instrumentals, ‘Blood on Me’ resembles a “feverish nightmare” in which the Sisay is stalked by nameless figures in “Grey hoodies”. It’s a suffocating and paranoid chase, and it’s totally irresistible.
Similarly, ‘Incomplete Kisses’ is straightforward yet tender, blending old-school R&B styles with a glimmering backbeat, whilst it’s polished vocal lines recall ‘channel ORANGE’ at it’s most expressive. In (few) places, Sisay’s instrumental efforts are a little too oppressive, particularly on ‘Under’ which comes across as quite hectic, a mess of dense rhythms and out-of-place vocal samples that divert the spotlight away from his delightful vocal ability.
Sampha has been an almost constant presence all these years, flitting through the music industry’s most high-profile and money-infatuated scene, however with ‘Process’, it’s clear the South Londoner’s eyes aren’t fixed on the top spot. ‘Process’ is just that. It chronicles Sampha’s tussles with grief and anxiety as he finally grasps the controls to demonstrate his immense versatility as a solo-artist. It could be alternative R&Bs most important release since FKA twigs ‘LP1’, which debuted 3 years ago. ‘Process’ is a remarkable listen that throws up different feelings every time it’s played, and I strongly urge you to let Sampha be your soulful guide through love, loss and family.
Sampha will be be bringing his breathtaking live show to a small run of UK venues this Spring, but you’ll have to be quick, both London shows are now sold out! You can find all the relevant dates below, why not indulge in ‘Process’ by listening to it on Spotify whilst you’re at it…
Sampha, March 2017 tour dates:
26th March, Birmingham, O2 Institute, Digbeth
28th March, Bristol, O2 Academy
29th March, London, Roundhouse (Sold Out)
30th March, London, Roundhouse (Sold Out)
You can purchase any remaining tickets using the link below:
Words by Joe Bulger
Featured image courtesy of Matt Seger for Noisey