The Best Albums of 2017 (So Far):
Sampha - Process
THERE is a lot of talk concerning race in music and whether…
the industry is doing enough to support minorities. Whatever your views on this debate; there are a lot of inventive and compelling black artists that are complicated the debate – in a good way, that is. Many assume minority artists play in minority genres – it is a specious argument but one, ironically, created by the media/a section of people pigeonholing these acts to begin with. Step forward Sampha who is impossible to categorise and label. His music could be described as Neo-Soul or R&B; maybe Pop with a bit of Hip-Hop. He is at his most affecting when opening the heart and speaking from his own experiences. This is evident on the astonishing, articulate and deeply moving debut, Process. In past years, the British singer-songwriter has made use of his bedroom/homemade studio. Residing in Modern, South London; Sampha is known for his collaborations with Jessie Ware, Drake and Solange – among many others. Born to Sierra Leonean parents on 1988; the young Sampha (Sampha Sisay to give him his full name) played piano at his parents’ home in Morden. After his older brother made him a makeshift studio – and the curious youngster engrossed his mind with old recordings and new discoveries – the flame was lit. E.P.s Sundanza (2010) and Dual (2013) showed immense process and captured the intimacy and rawness of Sampha’s music. It was inevitable the hungry and ambitious musician would seek the comforts and choices of the studio.
Recorded at various studios in London; Process was, befitting of its title, a gradual coming-together of songs that were finally released on 3rd February. Not that Process is a huge expansion and sea change from his E.P.s. The songs are finely crafted and meticulous: time to make the notes and ideas gestate, grow and appeal. Around the time the album was written; Sampha lost his mother to cancer. Process, in a sense, is the articulation of the harrowed and devastated man coming to terms with a huge tragedy. On the album, one got a contrasted and afflicted man who was wrestling with grief and loss – someone unsure whether he has abandoned his roots and stepped too far into the mainstream. That could never be. Sampha was progressing from the confines of home and embracing the studio and its surroundings. Process has Sampha’s London roots ingrained in every note: memories and tales of his mother are entwined in the soil like a mighty tree.
It would be hard to give the music (on Process) its lustrous, cinematic and emotional immediacy were it not for some of the more hi-tech recording equipment available at the time. Sure, Sampha would have been able to create a more haunted and bare-naked sound at the home studio. Process is not a man taking a chance to follow money and a label: it is the natural reaction to the circumstances that provoked the album’s progeny. When writing the songs, he would have been acutely aware they would be played on radio – or, at the very least, make their way to people all around the world. The importance of the subject matter and instrumentations/sounds/values needed to authentically define his emotional and creative mindset could only emanate from the studio. He has not compromised values or lost any of his potency and credibility. Process has a sound that is not over-produced: it is organic and free yet has experimentation and scope. THAT is the reason Sampha, in his words and nobody else, felt he had betrayed his roots. One could not hear that unique approach to arrangements without an over-reliance on hand-held technologies.
Songs like Plastic 100°C has koto sounds and is soothing and panicked, all at once. Kora Sings boasts juxtaposed and intense percussive scramble; Reverse Faults showcases Sampha’s gift with samples and sonic patchwork – weaving it into something unnerving, strange and beautiful. What impresses me, and most critics, is that steadfast refusal to conform with the market and copycatting peers. Sampha did not feel the need to become the next Kanye West or Drake. He retained his London blood and distinct, peerless attitude to music and composition. An almost anonymous presence could easily sink without trace. The fact Process is no ordinary album is just as well: it is a moment in time that cements Sampha’s reputation as one of the world’s most impressive and vibrant songwriters.
Compassionate and soul-baring; strident and meditative at other times – a remarkable album that few people were expecting. Given the aftermath of his mother’s death; it would be forgivable were Process an inconsistent and self-indulgent mess. Sampha does not look for sympathy not turn the album into a family photo album. Instead, it is an album everyone can understand and feel connected to. (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano is, perhaps, the most affecting song concerning his mother – that early experience with the instrument and his mother’s hand in that. Rather than shy away from the heartache, stress and troubles experienced: Process is an execration and detox, in a way. It is a brave young man revealing memories and words that many would want to keep concealed – due to them being deeply personal and sacred. That is one reason why Process resounded with critics. Sampha, on the record, managed to turn tragedy into something beautiful and uplifting. There are genuine moments of sorrow but, against the tide of loss and change, there is hope and the need to process things and make sense.
Given Sampha’s work with artists like Jessie Ware; it would have been easy enough to have her sing on, say, Take Me Inside. Process is a personal/familial sermon so would seem disingenuous and tainted were too many other bodies to tell the story. Aside from a couple of co-writes later on the album – Timmy’s Prayer has Kanye West on the credits – it is Sampha alone. Three singles have been released from the album – Timmy’s Prayer, Blood on Me and (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano – and that is quite rare in this day. Many artists release five or six songs from a record. Perhaps there is another single coming but, one suspects Sampha is already looking ahead to his next release. Whether you agree with Sampha’s assertion he has abandoned a bit of his roots, one cannot deny the sheer wonder available throughout Process. It is one of the most impressive debut albums in recent years and, when it comes to this year’s best albums, it is…
PHOTO CREDIT: foxyneela
RIGHT near the top of the list.
Sampha and Rodaidh McDonald
Kora Sings, (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano; Reverse Faults; Incomplete Kisses
Blood on Me