Last week, Sampha released his debut album. For anyone who has followed the British singer since his breakout performance as the dominant voice on Aaron Jerome’s U.K. garage project SBTRKT, the arrival of Process seems long overdue.
It’s not as if Sampha has been entirely absent in the years between SBTRKT’s widely acclaimed 2011 album and now. In 2013, he released a 6-track EP, Dual. He also released a short two-track single, “Too Much/Happens,” that Drake sampled for “Too Much” on Nothing Was the Same. This year, he sang backing vocals on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and his voice partly informs “Saint Pablo,” the closing track on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He has parceled out his material in small doses, giving us just enough to pique our interest.
Sampha’s music is an amalgam of post-millennial pop that draws from the kind of stark confessionals that have long thrived among singer/songwriters as well as baroque electronic soul.
The amount of material Sampha has offered may be modest, but it has had an outsized impact. His version of “Too Much” has a ghostly fragility that he underscores with a voice that sounds uncommonly vulnerable. When he reaches for the high notes, his voice cracks like it’s a stained glass window reflecting light.“One of the reasons Sampha connects with so many people – famous creators and fans alike – is because he has a voice that scratches the soul,” a 2016 Fader cover story explained.
Sampha’s music can’t be neatly classified under R&B. It is an amalgam of post-millennial pop that draws from the kind of stark confessionals that have long thrived among singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Alicia Keys; as well as the baroque electronic soul, or “alternative R&B,” of FKA twigs, The Weeknd (at least on his initial Trilogy EP), and Kelela. When Sampha emerged at the beginning of the decade, he was frequently lumped into the latter group. He also had to escape comparisons to James Blake, a fellow British musician who not only sings in a similarly pained tone, but has also become an unexpected hit maker by fusing piano balladry with dubstep.
But over the years, Sampha has proven that his voice is uniquely his own. It’s readily identifiable when he and Solange harmonize, “What you say to me?” on “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and when it bubbles up as a wordless background aria on Beyoncé’s “Mine.” (He co-wrote both songs as well.) Last fall, when he announced that he would finally release his debut album, it quickly became clear that, despite lingering on the pop fringes for so many years, industry buzz surrounding him was undiminished. He has built an audience ready for his heartfelt and soulful poetry.
Like most of Sampha’s solo work — though not necessarily dance-oriented collaborations like SBTRKT or Short Stories, the latter a one-off with producer Koreless — he strips Process down to its emotional essentials. (He produced the album himself alongside Rodaidh McDonald.) The album has electronic pulses: “Blood on Me” has a strong drum machine rhythm that seemingly replicates a heartbeat, just like Timmy Thomas’ 1972 anti-war lament, “Why Can’t We Live Together.” “Kora Sings” has a sprightly synth-pop arrangement. But (“No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” which pays tribute to his late mother and a childhood spent in South London, is more typical of the songs here. It’s just Sampha and his piano detailing the fragility and resilience of the human spirit.