CV: Sampha, Process

February 13, 2017

Sampha Sisay’s debut album has been a long time coming. The South London singer-songwriter has recently collaborated with big names such as Drake, Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Solange. But every time his career seemed ready to take off, he was called back home by an ever present tragedy: his mother’s ongoing battle with cancer, which she lost in 2015, 17 years after Sampha lost his father to cancer. Now, in 2017, it’s clear that Sampha’s Process is a very particular kind of process: one of grieving.

Photo: Young Turks

Within the first ten minutes of Process, one can already pinpoint some of Sampha’s fellow countrymen as influences. A mellow trip hop beat and subtle rolling hi-hats on “Plastic 100°C” recall James Blake’s electronic minimalism, while the bass/snare/cowbell groove underlying “Blood On Me” sounds like a Radiohead sample. The third track in the collection, “Kora Sings,” is more stylistically diverse, featuring a traditional West African stringed instrument evocative of his parents’ home country, Sierra Leone. The musical allusion is a clear nod to his roots and the memory of his parents, but his raw grief isn’t tangible until the final verse when he pleads with the ghost of his mother, “You’ve been with me since the cradle / You’ve been with me you’re my angel / Please don’t you disappear.”

A short outro leads to a heart-wrenching ballad, perhaps the most poignant moment on an album brimming with poignancy. “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home,” Sampha sings over morose arpeggiated chords, his voice cracking ever so slightly. In moments like these, when he is at his most vulnerable, with nothing but a piano and that pure, heavenly voice, Sampha is at his best. He sticks to this formula for the first half of the following song, “Take Me Inside,” allowing his gossamer falsetto to rise like mist and dissipate into the ether. But even there, somewhere above the clouds, Sampha still finds no answers, no remedy for his sorrow. “I’m seeking something I can’t see,” he laments.

The album drops back to earth with a pair of understated trap beats on “Reverse Faults” and “Under.” The gently rocking “Timmy’s Prayer” showcases Sampha’s sensitive songwriting, telling a story of regret and abandoned love. On the penultimate track, “Incomplete Kisses,” Sampha points to something akin to healing after an indefinite period of grief. He acknowledges that sharing your pain allows one to transform it into something else, if not dull it. “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 / Moving on.”

On a gorgeously sparse final track that is somber yet hopeful, Sampha asks himself “What shouldn’t I be?” In the reflective concluding stages of his Process, Sampha distills some important truths, namely “You can always go home” and “It’s not all about me.” He realizes the bittersweet good that comes with loss: unforgiving maturation, a wistful change in perspective, and the melancholy appreciation of precious life. Sampha knows that this process, whether it be of grief or healing, never completely ends. But he also recognizes that there is something to find in the depths of that sorrow. In a way, he’s starting from scratch; faced with the daunting “What should I be?,” he instead turns to its opposite. After losing something, it’s sometimes best to retrace your steps back to where you began. That’s the direction Sampha drifts toward on Process: finding some clarity, and some beauty, in simplicity.

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