Arriving on the back of work with other artists, his name cropping up periodically over a number of years, Sampha Sisay’s debut has felt like a long time coming. He’s had one hell of an apprenticeship. From early collaborations with SBTRKT and Jessie Ware through to turns on massive records like Frank Ocean’s Blond and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. He may have taken his time, but there was certainly no messing when it came to getting stuck in with the heavyweights.
Unsurprisingly, there’s an appetite for his first full-length solo outing, and in so many respects Sampha has delivered on the promise of his early EPs and his input into others’ work. The previously released Blood On Me appears early in the track listing and remains as striking as when it was released last year, a perfect instance of what folk have found so alluring about him. The snappy beat hooks you straight away, then Sampha’s vocal locks on, an early promise like this which almost ensures a sure fire winner through its crisp beats, scattered piano and urgent vocal.
The second single appeared not long before the album’s release, and (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano seemed like the affirmation everyone was looking for that his debut might well be a stone cold classic. Whilst his star was rising, Sampha was suffering a personal history littered with sorrow, culminating in the death of his mother. This sorrow informs the record immeasurably, none more so than here. It’s all the more affecting for the fact that R’n’B and electronic music can so often be overproduced, that a straightforward, delicately performed, tender piano ballad feels restorative.
Another real strength of Process is in the lyrical honesty Sampha applies to his losses. He steers clear of self-pity and isn’t afraid to face up to his own shortcomings. Reverse Faults is another standout track. Whilst at times it breaks down into more traditional R’n’B territory, it is framed by electronic glitches and swathes that create a lovely tension against his silk smooth voice. That tension is mirrored in the lyrics where he laments, “Where’s that smile when it matters?” only to confess, “where was I when you called?” You can only hope such candour affords him some catharsis.
Those high-profile collaborations seem to have worked in the opposite direction, too. Kanye West is credited on Timmy’s Prayer, which is no doubt quite a coup for this relatively new artist. It’s not really clear what West has contributed, but it does benefit from a lovely, loose old school beat, which breaks down for a frantic middle eight that hears him plead, “Can you hear me? Can you find me?/If you find me, I wanna tell you that I love you so/I wanna tell you that love comes and goes.” In an album of such personal sadness, this break of untempered passion is invigorating. For all the tenderness of No One Knows Me, this is the track that feels most open and revealing, and his confession that “I’m waiting cuz I fucked up/I don’t know which way to go now/I don’t know where’s home now” is the most moving.
Process isn’t without fault, the main one being that many of the tracks just aren’t as memorable as the lead singles. Possibly even more surprising, though, is the lack of surprises. It’s already clear that Sampha is a fine and expressive singer, but musically you might expect a little more in the way of electronic experimentation. It’s a comforting record, but one you wish was a little more abrupt in places. Even so, it’s a hugely graceful collection played out with dignity.