“Process” by Sampha — An Album Review

Sampha’s solo debut, Process, is dynamic and meditative, and showcases Sampha’s ability as a solo musician, as he successfully transitions from his role as a backup singer and “featured” vocalist into the front man.

Sampha was featured on some of the most critically and commercially successful releases of 2016, providing vocals for Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange on their most recent albums. Amongst super stars, he still added noticeable color and personality to select tracks. His voice is an immediately recognizable warm baritone that never feels forced, even when Sampha reaches into his upper range. His delivery is usually fairly legato, but its smoothness is contrasted by his vocal agility and deft on his tracks with a higher tempo.

While Sampha’s absolutely gorgeous voice is the immediate focal point of this project, it is the instrumentation and production that elevate it beyond the average heartfelt R&B release. His artistic prowess is just as much within the depths of the tracks as it is in his voice. The album opens with a single electronic beep from a hospital heart monitor, followed by momentary silence. It is a captivatingly mysterious moment. In that split second it becomes unclear if the silence implies death to a subject of the album, or if it is Sampha’s agony between pulses that causes the silence to feel so elongated. In this moment, as short as it is, Sampha is able to welcome his audience to his emotional world before he even sings a syllable. Delicately plucked strings with a bright tone prelude Sampha’s entrance on “100 Degrees Celsius”, a track that features a baroque-like string arrangement, using arpeggios and countermelodies to support Sampha’s vocals.

On “Blood on Me”, the lead single from Process, the album reaches its first musical climax with a catchy and climatic chorus that lies in Sampha’s vocal sweet spot. A sleekly produced and driving drum pattern fuel the energy of the song, that departs from the string arrangements of the album’s opening. He belts “I swear they smell the blood on me” as he deals with the pressure from his critics due to his newfound fame. His vocally delivery is exhausted and breathless. Interestingly enough, in an interview with Genius.com, he clarifies that this was very intentional. Sometimes this meant he would go on runs before recording the song. On occasion, he admits to actually taking a few laps around the studio to accomplish the vocal delivery.  

The album’s centerpiece is “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”. Sampha delivers a heartfelt ballad, devoid of the complex backing instrumentation, about the piano in his mother’s home, where he has presumably spent countless hours of time and creative energy. The piano in the track is even slightly out of tune, intentionally, giving the song additional charm and intimacy, as if he is playing the song from the nostalgic comforts of his childhood living room. The tender ode to his first piano is Sampha’s best track to date.

Process mediates on universal themes, like death, love, and nostalgia, but Sampha’s perspective and poignant lyricism is automatically welcomed because of his voice that immediately stirs up your emotions. R&B is packed with talented musicians and vocalists, Sampha certainly being one of them, but his choices in instrumentation and arrangements remove him from any of the monotony that could be present within the genre. Each track functions well on its own, and the album has and will produce singles that are fit for the mainstream radio. Process is a dynamic work, musically and emotionally, but it also is a cohesive and thought out project, making it one of the best albums of year so far.

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