The staticky voice of famed US astronaut Neil Armstrong utters the first words of Sampha’s Process. ‘I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun,’ he says. Those opening lines and this opening track, ‘Plastic 100°C’, say a lot about Sampha Sisay, the London-bred producer who is finally stepping into the spotlight. Sampha’s first prominent body of work saw him feature on several tracks of SBTRKT’s synonymous debut album but since then he has gone on to work with a number of popular artists. Production work and vocal features alongside the likes of Drake, FKA twigs and Jessie Ware helped to flesh out his CV, but 2016 was a really solid showing from Sampha as he appeared on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s Endless and Solange’s A Seat at the Table, three of the year’s defining records. This A-list stamp of approval beckons Sampha into the limelight, but whether he wants to take that step is another question. ‘It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here/I’m made out of plastic out here,’ he sings on ‘Plastic 100°C’, weighed down by the turbulence of his public baptism.
But before Armstrong introduces the album, we here something else: the bleep of a recording camera, as if a video has started playing. Process, as the title suggests, isn’t just an account of Sampha’s journey to this point; it collects everything that has shaped him and his artistry into this 40-minute showing. Sharing that is a huge step in itself for Sampha, who self-imposes his isolation willingly. Soul is an innate feature of Sampha’s work and it is re-purposed by his sturdy bridge to the personal. On ‘Kora Sings’, he proudly presents his Sierra Leone heritage in a bustling melange of strings and immediate percussion, whilst still reflecting and aching over his mother’s death from cancer in 2015 (‘You’ve been with me since the cradle/You’ve been with me, you’re my angel/Please don’t you disappear’). The following track, ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’), retraces the same painful memories, but it also charts Sampha’s growth from a particularly tough cocoon. ‘Piano’ is the most minimal track on Process, and yet its remarkable narrative makes it the album’s most powerful track.
Even with his introverted nature, Sampha is very forward and open about himself. That sense of candid vulnerability has found a crucial place in the spectrum of 2010s pop and Sampha has made an extremely telling addition to that offshoot. The disaffected brood of ‘Under’ hovers uncomfortably over its beat, twitching and sparking like severed nerve endings. If you could imagine Bon Iver helming ‘Piano’, you could certainly imagine Frank Ocean’s ears pricking at the sound of the brilliant ‘Under’, especially when Sampha bellows ‘I’m gasping for air’ at the track’s close.
Sampha sounds like he’s close to shattering at so many points throughout the album- even during the seemingly more upbeat moments. On ‘Incomplete Kisses’, Sampha verges on a full-blown slow jam as he laments the quality of hindsight in revisiting a lost love. ‘Blood on Me’ locates him at his most forceful, piercing a slick piano composition with a breathy vocal. ‘I swear they smell the blood on me,’ he half-shrieks, isolated by his own insecurities. Like so many wallflowers, Sampha finds solace and voice in his music but struggles to assimilate to the sprawling world of notoriety. Sampha is an artist who would have once been content and more comfortable settling in amongst his instruments and beats. With Process, the insecurities and scars are still on show, but Sampha has become the point of focus, glowing at the seat of the piano his father bought when he was three years old.