There is a magic behind collaboration that Sampha has not only mastered, but has also kept close to his chest since the beginning of his career in music. Finding a new calling in the shadows of the studio, the 28-year-old Londoner has spent the past five years providing his talents to some of today's most influential artists, including Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Solange and SBTRKT. But as more and more listeners fell under his spell and first learned of his name, many began to wonder how strong he could stand on his own once it was his time to step into a lone spotlight.
With the release of Sampha's highly-anticipated debut album, Process, those keeping a watchful, critical eye can take a reclining seat; this isn't an album designed to impress or please, but rather to inspire those listening to be present and still. Much like his portrait on the cover suggests, this is a project best indulged in with eyes closed, a warm tea in hand and an open mind. Inhale, exhale and be ready to be pleasantly surprised.
Finding success in navigating his vulnerabilities, Sampha cautiously and carefully reveals different layers from his once safeguarded perspective and experiences, hinting that although he's been through hell and back, he hasn't lost sight of the fact that there's a peaceful calm that arrives after the storm passes. It's in these moments of honest self-discovery that Sampha not only finds strength, but also is reborn through his artistry, doing so in a way that also holds as much of a healing power for others inevitably captivated by his story as it does for the recording artist himself.
While the UK native doesn't put all of his tragedies in front of his handshake, it's clear as we get to know Sampha through his music that the devastating loss he's encountered throughout his life — such as losing both of his parents to cancer years apart — hasn't left him unscathed. It's a complicated heartbreak that doesn't quite ever leave, but Sampha embraces that lingering sorrow in a way that allows it to exist as his elixir, transforming his misfortunes into a saving grace, consequently enabling him to rise above the ashes as if his spirit were that of a phoenix.
The music itself presents a stark contrast proving Sampha is unassumingly in full control, with beautifully haunting melodies creating a curious parallel from the sometimes-grim lyrical content. Sampha masterfully juxtaposes pleasure and pain, with comforting reminders of home found on "What Shouldn't I Be?" balancing out the loneliness and tragedy he explores on "Kora Sings." Guided by his lush falsetto, it's only fitting that Sampha's dynamic, quiet world is best explored through multiple listens, each stirring up different complex emotions amplified by his love affair with the piano and his forward-thinking approach to electronic-leaning production.
The album's 10 tracks set out to expose the innermost conflicted corners of his private, imperfect mind, neatly and carefully ripping pages out of his diary for the first time just to realize that the conversation he's been having within himself this whole time has been pushing him closer and closer to the edge. Sampha has patiently waited to tell his story, even being hesitant to dive in at times, fully aware that you can't clean up an oil spill just by admiring its vexed beauty from a distance. By getting his hands dirty, Process becomes as therapeutic as it does meditative, with the tracks blending into one another at times. The meticulous effort is one to be commended, with beating drums, dramatic piano and delicate synths helping to craft what at times feels like as much as a concept album themed around grief as it does a first introduction to his identity. By addressing his past, he makes room for the future — an optimism he didn’t necessarily warm up to overnight.
As exemplified throughout the ambitious album, there is a degree of madness found in grief that doesn't always change or go away once you address its looming presence. Sampha faces his demons in the most artistic way possible, and by doing just that, he not only exposes his pained soul but invites us to welcome the process of doing the same. He doesn't have everything figured out, reminding us Process is just that — a process— and one that Sampha holds sacred. After all, from rot, grows life.
While Sampha is still stretching and warming his muscles in advance of the next race, if Process is any indication, there’s nothing quite like being lost in the right direction.
(Photo: Young Turks Recordings)