You’ve probably heard Sampha Sisay’s voice before. You might have heard him provide backing vocals for Drake on “Too Much” or “The Motion” or for Solange on “Don’t Touch My Hair.” You might have heard his dramatic verse on “Saint Pablo” by Kanye West. You might have heard him as a ghostly presence on Beyoncé’s “Mine” or Frank Ocean’s “Alabama.” (You might have even heard him six years ago, singing on SBTRKT’s self-titled debut.) But Sampha’s full-length debut is his show alone. After playing a supporting role to some of popular music’s elite tier, Sampha is singing for himself on “Process.”
And what a singing voice he has. Forceful yet gentle, Sampha’s voice is a dazzling instrument that demands your attention, and when he reaches into his upper register, a breathy falsetto, it pulls you even closer into what he’s singing. Sometimes he’ll incorporate vocal tics and gasps into the production, as he does on “Blood on Me” (one of the album’s standout tracks) and “Under.” On previous outings, Sampha’s voice could come across as kind of distant, but here, it’s at the forefront of the songs, where it should be.
In addition to his voice, Sampha’s songwriting melds electronic and acoustic elements in such a way that the two don’t clash. The reversed synths and jagged beats of “Reverse Faults” make for one of the most inventive tracks I’ve heard so far this year. Earlier on the album, the kora — a West African stringed instrument — pops up on the fittingly-named track “Kora Sings,” where it sits beautifully alongside skittering electronics, as well as on album opener “Plastic 100°C.” Sampha chose his singles well; “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Blood on Me” are relatively straightforward, but they’re two of the most immediately catchy tunes on the album. The latter drops Sampha into the middle of a nightmare in which he can’t seem to outrun the ghosts in grey hoodies, even as he wakes: “Felt so much more than dreamin’ / I get up, they’re at the edge of my bed,” he gasps, before the song builds up to a massive climax of cascading vocals.
On other songs, Sampha’s lyrics are much more personal, as he works his way through family tragedy. In the years leading up to “Process,” Sampha’s mother died of cancer; before that, his eldest brother was disabled by a stroke. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a heartbreaking piece of music, is as much a dedication to his loss as it is an ode to the titular instrument, which he has been playing since he was three: “You took hold of me and never, never, never let me go,” Sampha sings. Here, the piano is not just something that Sampha plays; it’s practically a duet partner, filling in the space between his lyrics wordlessly and lovingly, responding to confessions like “you would show me I had something some people call a soul.” Closing track “What Shouldn’t I Be?” is a reflection on what remains of Sampha’s family, from his straining to keep it together (“Family ties / Put them ‘round my neck”) to his fractured relationship with his brother (“I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months”). Still, Sampha holds onto his memories of his family, together: “You can always come home,” he repeats.
Sampha is often compared to James Blake, and while it’s not hard to see why — both are Britons with full, striking croons and affinities with electronics and pianos — the comparison can be a bit lazy, even reductive. Blake comes across as an electronic musician who happens to be a hell of a singer; Sampha is a singer first and foremost who utilizes electronic elements. (I’m fairly certain that my mother, whom I have yet to introduce to Blake or Sampha, would be able to tell “Retrograde” and “Timmy’s Prayer” apart.) I’m tempted to liken Sampha to Frank Ocean, owing to their impassioned vocals and direct lyrics, even though the two sound nothing like each other. Maybe such comparisons do him a disservice. Sampha sounds like no one but himself, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.