Sampha: Process review – an unlikely star is born | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

(Young Turks)
The British producer-singer who’s worked with Beyoncé, Drake and Kanye releases a powerful debut album of experimental R&B about death and grief

Pop history is filled with backroom figures who were desperate to transcend their supporting role: from Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who somehow cobbled together a solo career despite being, as one commentator perceptively noted, “tone deaf and rhythmically challenged”, to Timbaland, ever eager to race out from behind the mixing desk, elbow Missy Elliott out of the way and once more test his demented belief that his undoubted genius as a producer was matched by his genius as a rapper. But no one can lay the charge of an insatiable desire for the limelight at the door of Sampha Sisay.

He is, by all accounts, the whole pop auteur package: he can write, produce and furthermore sing – in a gorgeous, bruised, understated voice. But he has hardly pursued his solo career with rapacious intensity: before the songs that make up his debut album started to emerge last year, he’d released a grand total of one single and two EPs (the latter seeming to consist of sketchy ideas he couldn’t find a home for elsewhere) in six years. His talents have been employed by everyone from Drake to SBTRKT and Jesse Ware, and he appeared on three of the most widely acclaimed albums of 2016: Kanye West’s Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s Endless and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. But even as a collaborator, he’s evinced an oddly self-effacing touch. He sang on Mine, a single from Beyonce’s eponymous 2013 album, but you wouldn’t have known from the credits, which neglected to mention him at all.

Listening to his debut album, you find yourself wondering if he felt impelled to make it for personal reasons, rather than from any great desire to launch himself as a star. It often feels like an unburdening of heavy emotional baggage, that brings to mind the late Tony Wilson’s famous line about Joy Division making music because “they had no fucking choice”. His mother’s death from cancer and its emotional repercussions hang heavy over large swaths of Process. Sometimes it deals with her loss in impressionistic, fantastical terms. Blood on Me offers up a feverish nightmare about trying to outrun something faceless and terrifying that’s “coming for me … can smell the blood on me”.

There’s a lot of talk of angels and ghosts, of his mother speaking to him from beyond the grave. But it often draws grief in bleak, telling details. Incomplete Kisses depicts his remaining family slumped in front of a malfunctioning television, poleaxed into inertia: “In this house we’re sinking but we’re far too numb to care.” Elsewhere, there’s the spectre of a health scare involving a growth on Sisay’s throat, lurking around opener Plastic 100°C: “Sleeping with my worries, I didn’t really know what that lump was.”

Illness, death, grief: this is obviously harrowing terrain, but musically at least, Process is an album that skilfully balances light and shade. A lot of the former comes from the fact that Sisay’s songwriting is strong melodically. The misery of Incomplete Kisses is leavened by the buoyancy of its tune. And while Under is claustrophobic – a dense mesh of vocal samples and screams, off-key synth lines and a beat that seems to punctuate the song rather than lock it down – the song’s chorus is pretty delicious.

Elsewhere, there are moments when Sisay hits the listener with the full weight of his unhappiness. The ballad (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano features only the titular instrument (that it sounds slightly out of tune suggests Sisay might be playing the piano from his mother’s house that the lyrics refer to) and a raw, close-miked vocal. The track that follows it, Take Me Inside, is scarcely less stark, stirring in a handful of vocal effects and a few wisps of electronics.

Sisay shows off a genuinely individualistic approach to arrangement. The panic of Plastic 100°C floats along on a gentle wave of what sounds like harp or maybe koto. Kora Sings features a thrilling patchwork of scampering percussion, electronic noise and field recordings of rain and children speaking. The samples on Reverse Faults are melded into an insistent, slightly groggy pulse that’s both compelling and unsettling. Nothing feels in thrall to current trends in R&B, either sonically or emotionally: Sisay may have been a constant, quiet presence on other people’s records last year, but Process doesn’t sound much like any of them. Instead, it’s a weighty, powerful album with an identity entirely of its own. And while clearly not constructed with commercial ambition at the forefront of its mind, it’s certainly good enough to make an unlikely star of the man behind it.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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