British R&B singer-songwriter Sampha, whose distinctive vocals and electronic sound attracted the attention of critics back in 2013 with his EP Dual, has finally released his much-anticipated debut album after appearing on some of the biggest projects in recent memory. Last year alone he racked up guest spots with Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”), Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), and Frank Ocean (“Alabama”, from Blonde‘s accompanying visual album Endless. Breaking away from the low-key sound that resulted from recording in his own bedroom on his previous material, Process is a diverse mix.
The project features tracks buoyed equally by the simple melodies of Sampha’s piano, which he has been playing since the age of 3, and frantic, skittering electronic beats. To take things to an even higher level of significance, the majority of the album is framed around Sampha’s reactions to the death of his mother, who introduced him to music, after a battle with cancer. While the lofty ambitions outlined by its sound aren’t always fully realized, carving out this kind of an identity on a debut album is an admirable risk.
Process is almost entirely made by Sampha himself which is yet another commendable move – there are only two tracks that have anyone else credited, the only recognizable name being Kanye West’s co-writing credit on “Timmy’s Prayer”. This is a very ambitious debit and the artistic vision he displays here has me very excited for the future, mostly because the sonic landscape is all over the place. There are surprising twists and turns that frequently occur mid-song, “Kora Sings” being a great example – we start with some very exotic-sounding instruments giving off almost a Bollywood vibe before a brief electronic click signals the song’s second half, featuring an electronic tribal drum pattern reminiscent of West’s own 808s and Heartbreak.
Sampha is mostly reliant on this upbeat and electronic style to complement his emotive and frequently falsetto vocals but when we drop back into piano arrangements in the middle of the album we see just how talented he is in this area too. The weakest link is unquestionably the vocals, which frequently have effects placed on them in a clear attempt to aim for the kind of sound that becomes undeniably the artist’s own, in a similar way that Francis & The Lights is doing currently. However, in the context of this album, it never really works the way it’s meant to.
The lyrics are the primary strength of the album, not incredibly complex but displaying genuine and harrowing human emotion in a tying time in Sampha’s life. The project is very rich in sound, as to be expected from a very technicall skilled musician and a necessary step to take in establishing a place at the forefront of this relatively new genre combining electronic music with R&B vocals. The energetic percussion that shows itself on about half of these tracks is innovative and very carefully crafted. “Blood On Me” might be the catchiest melody here which is only buoyed further by its beat, while “Reverse Faults” features Sampha’s version of a trap beat as it drops into its chorus.
You can really feel the Kanye influence on “Timmy’s Prayer” as well, showing his magical innate ability to craft lyrics that hit you hard despite their simplicity. Sampha describes his relationship simultaneously as “heaven” and “a prison”, continuing the surprising twists of sound as his voice flits over what sounds like a bagpipe playing a catchy riff in the background before the time signature is attacked by an oscillating, tripleted melodic electronic beat in the second half.
When the percussion drops out, however, there is far too much empty space. Songs like opener “Plastic 100 C” never really pick up off the ground in terms of energy and I don’t think Sampha is as stellar a singer as he needs to be to carry tracks that don’t feature other interesting musical aspects. The slower tracks like “Take Me Inside” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?” feature more of a sluggish and atmospheric landscape that ultimately comes across as quite boring. I feel like Sampha is at his best when the huge amount of emotion he pours into his vocal delivery is accompanied by chaotic music that captures the feeling he is trying to express better.
In terms of song structure, the choruses could be worked on more. Sampha applies the same vocal effect to most of them, a choice which I suppose is meant to add momentum to the song but is ultimately a bit too dissonant to remain enjoyable. He seems to enjoy playing in the chaos that results from a few crunchy chord patterns, going as far to open “Blood On Me” with some layered isolated vocals that are clearly off-kilter, but contrasted with the rich instrumentals they fall flat. “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” is another great song that I get taken out of by the chorus.
Sampha’s Process is fantastic in theory, but doesn’t fully deliver on the execution. I understand where the rave reviews it is currently receiving are coming from, as the idea he set out to achieve shows some serious potential and artistic vision, and does display quite a few aspects of an artist who could become visionary in the future. But this is just the debut album, and a lot of the excess in the form of rookie mistakes still needs to be trimmed before what is truly great about Sampha can shine.
Favourite Tracks: Timmy’s Prayer, Reverse Faults, Kora Sings, Blood On Me
Least Favourite Track: What Shouldn’t I Be?