Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Process the long-awaited debut from Sampha.
27-year-old Sampha Sisay has spent years playing the background; it’s what he’s good at, where he’s comfortable, but nowhere near the outer limit of his capabilities. Ask Queen Bey, Frank, Yeezus, and the 6 God about him: he’s a spirit with the skill of fluttering underneath our deepest worries, even as he remains in the shadows. With several years of high-profile work and no proper solo album to show, Process is symbolic of a career opus in its first act: a 40-minute work of painstakingly-meta proportions. Sampha’s on a lonely ride through turmoil and triumph, flanked only by his distinct pitch and an eclectic mesh of piano and electronica. He leaves us instructions on how to cherish what we have, confront what’s killing us, and be fearless enough to free ourselves.
Process is a young man’s memoir with no shortage of baggage to claim: Sampha’s many failures in giving and keeping love, his mother’s death from cancer, his disconnection from home, and a constant duel with his demons. From the opening Neil Armstrong blips on “Plastic 100°C,” he’s running away from the pressure of a light that’s melting him down to nothing. If it’s not the light, it’s the hooded figures from “Blood on Me” that make him crash his whip in hot pursuit, chasing him between dreams and reality. The latter’s expression of being chased by something one cannot name, but one’s all-too familiar with, is genius in the way the demons remain nameless; thus, applicable across generations for whichever trauma or nagging insecurities lurk within.
As Sampha’s lurked inside our speakers for years, his first true arrival is as loud as it begs to be, moving from slow swoons of piano to frantic, electric eccentricities across ten tracks. It’s quite easy to forget the swells of pain when admiring the warmth they’re covered in; Sampha’s production never loses sync with the content, morphing itself to be as grandiose or claustrophobic as necessary. “No One Knows Me (Like the Piano)” exemplifies this, inviting us into his childhood home with a glowing piano loop that gives us a front-row seat to his mother’s fading words. “Reverse Faults” is a hell of a record as well, giving Sampha the chance to ponder his own mistakes before crashing into a trap-like drop upon realizing how much he fucked up and blamed his lover for all his mistakes.
The writing is the true highlight of Process, placing Sampha in the upper echelon of pop producers with the cut of a dramatist and the whine of a hopeless, or hopeful, romantic. He speaks of his mother as the piano in her home that taught him how to be. He’s fond of car crash imagery to illustrate his failed runaway attempts from himself and others. He describes a lost love like Heaven, calling himself a prisoner to her that can only visit to observe where he was once trapped inside. Sampha doesn’t often work in the bluntness, opting to flex his imagery to transport the listener without losing them in tired cliches. When he drops the guard, it’s flattering and devastating that he let us in when he did. When he plainly admits that he fucked up on “Timmy’s Prayer,” or admits to running away from home and not seeing his kin in months on “What Shouldn’t I Be?,” the admissions grip enough on their own to facilitate the listener’s own inward glance at everything they’ve left incomplete.
Perhaps that’s the most Sampha quality: to leave things undone. It’s what makes Process a commentary on itself: after 40 minutes of reflection and catharsis, Sampha leaves plenty of unfinished business because process, itself, is something to trust time and again. He revels not in the loose ends, but encourages us to seize the next opportunity and take his mistakes for warning. Sampha’s built an oeuvre from a striking narration of human commonality and every which way it can turn on a dime. But to reduce this album to cautionary tale does it no justice; it’s a triumph of emotional resonance and a poppy maturity that gets rarer by the millisecond. Save for some odd sequencing moments and sonic choices that fall a bit short of themselves, this is an almost-flawless debut from a man who’s graced us with years of chances to face ourselves again. Don’t enter for a monument of clueless jubilee; no, expect to curl up on the pavement, swallow your failures, and find the pride to rise and swing again.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.