A lot of confessional poetry kind of pisses me off. The idea that total candor makes up for lack of artfulness is not only wrong, it’s kind of insulting to the reader(/listener). Occasionally, though, somebody hits the bulls-eye between soul-bearing truth and well-composed art, and Sampha’s debut album Process is just such an occasion.
Despite this being his debut solo album, Sampha is an old hand in the recording studio. For years he’s worked as a producer and has also lent his soulful, gentle voice to artists like Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”), Solange Knowles (“Don’t Touch My Hair”) and Frank Ocean (“Alabama”). It just took him a while—and a lot of encouragement from friends and family—to come out of his shell as a solo artist.
And the world is better for it. Sampha’s Process is a gem filled with finely crafted songs that pulse with raw and unabashed emotion. There is a total lack of pretension in his songwriting: not the naïveté of an amateur, but the experience of somebody who’s done a lot of emotional labor and isn’t afraid of it anymore.
Sampha’s father died of cancer when he was only 9 years old, and afterwards he turned to music to express and hash out his feelings. The single “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is a beautiful, minimalist ballad about the piano that his father bought for him and all the hard times it got him through. The piano was there for him again when his mother died of the same disease in 2015. “They said that it’s her time, no tears in sight/ I kept the feelings close,” he sings, “And you took hold of me and never, never, never let me go.”
The themes of youth and maturity hover just below the surface of these songs. Besides singing about his mother, the woman who raised him from infancy, Sampha also sings to his lover—somebody who, it seems, has also dragged him through emotional turmoil. On the track “Under,” Sampha tries to talk himself into being over her, but ultimately fails: “I see you manipulate your lover/ Take cover, waves come crashing over us/ And I go under.” But on “Reverse Faults” he acknowledges that he tends to shift the blame to others: “There’s a fault in my structure/ It’s always you and never me/ I threw the blame and it shattered.” Love is never straightforward or easy in Sampha’s songs, but, by the same token, it’s never taken for granted. After all that he’s been through, his emotional maturity is evident.
Sampha flexes his producer muscles on the tracks “Kora Sings” and “Reverse Faults,” two instrumentally beautiful songs. “Kora Sings” opens with spacey autoharp and gentle vocal melodies, then suddenly shifts into high gear after a drop—instead of his usual croon, Sampha is shouting here, “A mother needs a son so she needs therapy/ We don’t need to talk, I just need you here.”
On “Reverse Faults,” a reversed (hah, I see what he did there) synth line bucks and see-saws under Samhpa’s voice. Halfway through the song, the break suddenly kicks in with a trap-ish beat while Sampha sings gentle harmonies.
Sampha frequently uses his voice as a melodic instrument, nowhere more obviously than on “Blood On Me,” where the track opens with an onomatopoetic chant. Sampha is panting between verses on this track, lending to the lyrical image of running away from an unseen enemy.
Process ends with the sleeper track “What Shouldn’t I Be?” It’s a subtle song with Sampha’s quiet voice resting on a sparse synth melody. After everything that’s happened, Sampha wonders, where do I go from here? What kind of person do I want to be? “What shouldn’t I be?” Sampha asks himself between verses, over and over. Without the guidance of his mother—but, also, without the burden of caring for her—he has to discover these things all alone. “I should visit my brother,” he sings in the final verse, “But I haven’t been there in months/ I’ve lost connection, signal/ To how we were.”
The title “Process” hints at the grieving process that Sampha has had to go through, and, perhaps, labels this album as his primary way of processing the deaths of his parents. Accordingly, the emotional tone of Process is kind of a downer throughout. The song “Blood On Me” shakes up the pace a little with an up-tempo, hip-hop-influenced drum base, but there’s otherwise very little respite from the slow, sad feel of the album.
While this makes it an album you only want to listen to sometimes, I don’t think it makes it weaker. It’s just an accurate, unflinching portrayal of where Sampha was when he made it.