Up to this point in his career, R&B songwriter Sampha is largely known for his contributions to other artists’ work. In 2013, for example, he stole the show on “Too Much” from Drake’s Nothing is the Same record. And just last year, he showed up on both Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
Sampha’s debut, Process, is out today, and it will likely make him a much more common name to listeners everywhere. It’s an incredible record, alternating between gentle, beautiful ballads and more experimental tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on a hip-hop or electronic record.
This isn’t a hip-hop or electronic record, though—this is straight R&B and soul through and through.
Sampha has one of those one-of-a-kind, instantly recognizable voices, and he does a lot with it. Check out his delivery on “Blood on Me,” where he’s breathing hard and almost sounds as if he’s being chased. The lyrics match his performance, too: I swear they smell the blood on me, he sings out. I hear them coming for me! On slower tracks like “Take Me Inside” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?” he’s more of a straightforward, sincere crooner, and they’re some of the more enduring songs you’ll hear all year.
I should back up a bit and talk more about “Blood on Me,” which might just be the finest song on entire record. The production is like something from Radiohead’s In Rainbows, with Sampha singing while surrounded by a wall of layered vocals, drum loops and gorgeous pianos. It’s a fantastic song from start to finish and definitely one to check out if you’re curious what all of the fuss is about.
Another clear highlight is “(No One Knows Me Like) The Piano,” which finds the spotlight firmly on Sampha’s voice and, as you might have guessed, his piano. No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home, he sings. You would show me I have something, some people call a soul/ And you drop-topped the sky, oh you arrived when I was three years old/ No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home. The story is that Sampha moved back home to live with his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer, so a song that’s already phenomenal takes on even more meaning once you learn that bit of context.
I do want to call out a few more specific songs by name. First, “Kora’s Song” is perhaps the most out-there tune on the entire record, and I do mean that as a compliment. There’s a lot going on here, including synths, samples, drum machines, breakdowns, backing vocals and what sounds like a harp. “Kora’s Song” changes directions a few different times, like Sampha is having so much fun that he can’t stay focused, and I can’t even really think of another artist to compare it to other than maybe Björk.
And then there’s “Timmy’s Prayer,” which is absolutely haunting and was apparently co-written with Kanye. (None of it really sounds like Mr. West, so it feels like maybe Kanye just helped with a few lyrics here and there instead of actually coming up with the hook or anything like that. Maybe he arranged those drums? Hell, I don’t know.) At about 2:45, the song switches up a bit and zigs where you think it’s going to zag, but Sampha never sounds as if he’s losing control of his overall vision. He’s clearly just having a lot of fun here.
Overall, I can’t recommend Process enough. It’s the first real breakthrough of 2017 and I imagine I’ll grow to like it even more as I listen again and again.
Stream it here …