A quietly challenging triumph: Sampha's Mercury prize-winning album, Process

Process is a deserved, and quintessential, winner of the Mercury prize – deserving of a wider audience, balancing gorgeous vocals with singer-songwriter experimentation

One of the few reliable things about the Mercury prize is the apparently unerring ability of the bookmakers to get it wrong. Most years, their favourite is the most commercially successful of the nominees. And, as the Sun pointed out in a recent and lengthy piece that took it upon itself to explain to readers what the Mercury prize is, as if assuming they’d never heard of it – not perhaps the kind of publicity that the Mercury is looking for after 25 dogged years of existence, but there you go – “the Mercury prize is not really about commercial success and often the winner is a smaller artist”. It then went on to list a selection of past winners, and noted, perhaps with a certain arch of the eyebrow, that they remain “less well known”.

But this year, the bookies got it right: on the afternoon of the Mercury announcement, Sampha Sisay was the favourite, and Sampha Sisay subsequently won. Perhaps the bookies started paying closer attention to the nature of the Mercury prize itself. Process is a very Mercury-winner-ish kind of an album, if such a thing can be said to exist: an album that balances a traditional singer-songwriter approach – stark, confessional piano-led songs that make the most of Sisay’s gorgeous, bruised, understated voice – with tracks that reflect his other job, as a cutting-edge R&B and hip-hop producer who has worked with Beyoncé, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. It’s not brazenly commercial, but it is an album that you could easily see attracting a wider audience than it already has. According to a report by the Official Charts Company, it has thus far sold around 25,000 copies, 2,000 of them after it was nominated for the Mercury: sales some of Sisay’s fellow nominees wouldn’t dare dream of, but nothing to give another of them, Ed Sheeran, sleepless nights.

If calling Process a very Mercury-winner-ish kind of album sounds like faint praise, it isn’t intended as such. Inspired by the death of Sisay’s mother, and a health scare the singer himself faced, it frequently packs a winding emotional punch, while sonically it steers away from prevalent trends in R&B and ploughs its own individual, quietly challenging path: the thrilling tapestry of electronic noise, scattered percussion and samples of rain and children’s voices that makes up Kora Sings; the claustrophobic, compelling sound he conjures up on Under, then subverts with a beautiful pop chorus. Whether Sampha’s Mercury win means more people hear Process, or whether his name ends up added to the list of those winners who stubbornly stay “less well known” to the Sun’s readership, remains to be seen.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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