A solo album from Sampha Sisay, known musically by just his first name, has been a long time coming. The Londoner’s name already carries a lot of weight in the electronic music scene as a result of his frequent collaborations with Aaron Jerome, the post-dubstep act who records under the name SBTRKT. Sampha has also worked with many prominent artists in hip hop, soul, R&B and pop music, including Kanye West, Drake, Solange, Frank Ocean and a whole host of other artists. Indeed, Sampha is such a prolific collaborator with so many different artists that it’s easy to forget that he has yet to put out a full-length project of his own. Two solo EPs were released through Young Turks, but no solo material had been heard from Sampha since his 2013 EP Dual. The singer’s first full album’s worth of material, entitled Process, comes also from Young Turks and sees Sampha attempting to make a case for his unique approach to songwriting, primarily incorporating elements of electronic music and working them into a soul and R&B-inspired aesthetic. Sampha’s marrying of these different stylings came across rather well in the singles leading up to the release of Process, establishing an unequivocally unique sound for the singer, whilst also piquing my interest as to how he would maintain the attraction of these somewhat niche songs across an entire record. As for the end product, Process is a formidable debut for Sampha that alludes to great things for the artist, although it didn’t entirely meet my expectations and I retain some significant reservations for the project.
Whilst there are clear overarching lyrical themes across Process, the album fluctuates quite significantly instrumentally. Blood on Me, for instance, boasts a hard, synthetic hip hop beat, and then just two tracks later on (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano, the listener is treated to an impassioned piano ballad. The musical diversity expands much further than just this on the record, but these two songs mark the two most prominent sides to the album; the part of this album that features some solid grooves to support Sampha’s slightly soulful flows over the top, and the softer songs that range from using soft piano melodies to prominent synth lines. As a result, practically every track on here has its own distinctive identity and there are no cuts that seemingly blend into the surrounding songs in the tracklisting and get forgotten about, which is even more true considering the album’s short 10-track length. That’s not to say that every song on Process is as strong as the last, at least in my opinion, but there is enough variety on here that I’m sure that different details on different tracks would appeal or stand out to different listeners. This is also an album that warrants quite a few listens to properly form an opinion on, with songs like the opener, Plastic 100℃, proving to reveal some of their finer details only after subsequent listens, making for a fair few slowburners on Process. Lyrically, this is also a project to dwell on, and learning after my first listen of the album that many of these songs were written as Sampha’s mum was dying of cancer and following her death shone a new light on many of the recurring themes of sorrow, longing and suffering. The result is an album that I personally appreciate a lot more than I genuinely enjoy, as there are a few concerns for me that pop up throughout Process‘ runtime, but it is nonetheless a strong first full-length effort from the singer and I understand the reasons behind the universal critical acclaim that this album has received thus far.
A primary concern I have with this album is Sampha’s delivery as a singer. Whilst largely accurate and by no means bad, Sampha’s voice is seldom anything special to me, which is emphasised by the fact that he seems often reluctant to move outside of his midrange and play with some deeper lines that could give these songs a healthy amount of attitude and angst, or some higher falsetto vocals. In fact, the few instances in which Sampha does toy with a falsetto style, most notably on Take Me Inside, don’t go over quite as solidly as they could do. Being a short and sweet piano ballad, I imagine that Sampha may have been deliberately attempting some slightly hoarse high vocals on this track, and whilst they certainly play into the aesthetic of the song, they aren’t all that strong technically. Although Sampha does largely stay in his vocal comfort zone for the majority of this album, there are most certainly some highlights, particularly on the more hard-hitting tracks. The aforementioned Blood on Me is most definitely a highlight in the tracklisting, largely thanks to the heavy drum groove that carries that bulk of this track, as well as the low piano bass lines that are played for a dark and slightly sinister effect. What’s most impressive about this instrumental, however, is the extent to which it complements Sampha’s singing, with the best being brought out in his fluid flow by the hard beat. Another outstanding cut on Process is another song mentioned previously, that being (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano. Here, unlike on Take Me Inside, Sampha’s vocals fit very smoothly with the soft piano sequence that carries this composition, and the singer even conveys his most notable and effective vocal influence from soul and R&B on this cut. Songs like these — as well as other highlights like Kora Sings with its really off-kilter instrumental that Sampha rides nicely, and Under, where the singer encapsulates some of the best aspects of his electronic soul sound — show an undeniable amount of promise for Sampha, even from someone who isn’t head over heels for Process like myself. I certainly see a lot more room for Sampha to materialise the abstract stylings he’s attempting to bring to life on this record, but he nevertheless accomplishes this on the better tracks here.
Process is certainly a strong solo debut from Sampha and, although I have felt that his style of vocal delivery was never enough to grant him the individuality that an artist like him would benefit from, the heartfelt and sometimes abstract lyrical concepts that are touched upon, as well as the interesting instrumentals that range from subdued and sentimental to dynamic and hard-hitting, are enough to see that all of these songs maintain a distinct personality. There may be the odd dud in the tracklisting, but the best moments on this record are enough to leave an impression on most listeners, particularly when factoring in the incredibly personal and moving lyrics that are sure to resonate with certain listeners. Sampha may not have displayed a fully-formed sound on Process, but he has nonetheless laid down the foundation for a more realised and completed style on future releases.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10