Mortality is the reality, we live to die. Reminders of this fact even subtle ones can have either crippling or motivational effects or both, depending on the circumstance and each individual. Sampha’s long overdue debut album is a hauntingly beautiful examination and somewhat an appreciation of this inescapable reality.
‘Can’t Get Close’, the final song off Sampha’s 2013 ‘Dual’ EP was heart-wrenching ballad dedicated to his father who died from cancer when he was 9years old. Since then Sampha has been largely quiet in terms of solo releases but he’s worked with Jessie Ware, Kanye, Frank Ocean and Solange majorly acting as an emotional buffer/interlocutor while creating riveting pieces with these artists.
As glamorous as working these big names seem, he had to deal with the loss of his mother to cancer in 2015. All the feelings from this tragic loss coupled with his self-detached nature is put on display in a very honest yet silhouette-esque way. Sampha’s honesty is not in any way sappy, making the seemingly cliché album title, Process, apt in every sense. Every emotion is put on wax with Sampha’s vocals always in the centre of the mix while electronic and/or soul music components transfer the ideal setting for these emotions to be laid out.
The minimal construction of one of many standouts ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ bleeds all the grief from the death of his mother. It is a heart-swelling mix of piano chords, partly muted percussions and Sampha’s raw vocals all drenched in his pain. When he sings “You need to cuddle me and never never let me go”, it feels like the culmination of the pain of his loss is about to tear him into two. His mother’s spirit continues to hover around the uptempo backdrop of ‘Kora Sings’. Even with jumpiness of the production, his lyrics and vocals still deflates to his grief, “We don’t have to talk, I just need you here/But if you go away, please don’t disappear”.
Not only does he have to process his mother’s death, his own mortality is also a cause of worry. A lump was found in his throat sometime in 2011 and after extensive tests, the doctors couldn’t determine what caused the lump. “Sleeping with my worries, I didn’t even know what that lump was” he croons unassumingly over alien sounding synths on album opener ‘Plastic 100oC’. His vivid imagery accompanied by adrenaline filled drums on ‘Blood on me’ portrays his demons and fears in a lucid manner, carried perfectly by the urgency in his voice.
Not only humans can die on this album, love can too. Sampha’s splitting falsetto over Atlanta trap drums and skittering synths on ‘Reverse Faults’ displays palpable regret in expert fashion. The album’s first single and standout cut, ‘Timmy’s Prayer’, presents a much more vivid imagery of regret over lost love. With drums that sound like they’re being washed in tears, his presentation of love as Heaven and also a prison he’s willing to return is hauntingly beautiful.
Sampha’s display of vulnerability is potent but never overwhelming, emotions are clear but some circumstances are held back expertly. “Don’t let your heart hide your story/Don’t let your mind hide your story” is the striking line on penultimate track ‘Incomplete Kisses’, Sampha shares his story in a very compelling and emotion provoking way.
Writer’s rating: 4.4/5
Words by Peter Adedotun Dennis (@ayo_dennis)