British singer-songwriter Sampha has been known most notably for his collaborative background work with artists such as Jessie Ware, Drake, Solange, and Kanye. Often illusive, his vocals and piano work bleed only slightly into some of the popular records we’ve heard over the years.
His solo debut album Process serves as his introduction to the world, commanding the undivided attention he has so meticulously crafted and patiently waited for.
The most fascinating element of his artistry, an aspect that should not go unnoticed, is his distinctive vocal texture. Unlike any heard in the industry, Sampha’s voice already sets him apart from other rising artists who are striving to claim territory in today’s alternative and hybrid genres.
His vocal tone, often wavering and thin, tends to suggest that he’s on the verge of breaking even the softest and lowest of notes. It is this whisper quality of his voice, however, that allows him to produce a unique hollowness when he does sing with more power, highlighting even the most subtle shifts of emotion in his songs. In “Plastic 100C,” his vocals are able to increase with intensity as the song slowly builds its heavy instrumentation, heightening passion and strength as he unveils his inner conflict.
His signature ability to marry electronic instrumentation with his soul-driven vocal style is apparent in the album, “Reverse Faults” being a prime example. Over a steady beat and bursts of electronic infusions, his voice drives the song with control and ease. “Under” finds the necessary balance between his cooler vocal tone and the busy embellishments, ensuring that neither the music or the vocals are in a battle but instead are smoothly interwoven.
He sings, “I see you manipulate your lover/ Yes, I’m under your spell.” In the song, varying tempos reflect the helplessness he experiences as he dives deeper into the danger and excitement of being romantically entranced.
A personal favorite of mine is “Incomplete Kisses” for both its fusion of R&B and funk and its intimate lyrical content. He passionately sings, “Those incomplete kisses, wait too long you’ll miss it… Don’t let your heart hide your story… ‘Cause if you deny others inside it gets too harder to belong.” A song that loosely allows for multiple emotional interpretations, Sampha shows a newly discovered honesty for himself and for others, and the desire for an affection that is real and mutually understood.
His most beautiful and powerful song is in fact his simplest one, called “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” The raw talent and relationship with passion is firmly established in this song and becomes the backbone of the entire album. It is stripped of all instrumentation except for his vocals, piano, and a soft beat for depth. The piano is heard as a natural acoustic, echoing in an empty room as opposed to the crisp playing manipulated in a studio. It evokes the sensation that one is discovering music for the first time in a home, church or school. It is a humble and constant reminder of the root of any artist’s’ intentions at the end of the day, a passion that continues to grow and motivate over the course of one’s life.
Process is a work that is tense and heavily dosed with anxiety and conflict. His emotions become overwhelming, as he seems to want to shift this heaviness to his listeners. Just when the density becomes almost unbearable, there is a release of this tension as he calmly navigates us through to peace and certainty. Process has proven itself to be a work that is born from a place of self rediscovery and redefinition.