The name Sampha may not ring a bell for some mainstream music fans, but the South London singer-songwriter and producer’s fingerprints are stamped upon releases from today’s biggest stars. If Drake, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, either of the Knowles sisters, The xx, or SBTRKT are in your rotation then Sampha should be on your radar. I first came across his talents on Drake’s Nothing Was the Same. Album standout “Too Much” has Sampha singing the hook from his solo track of the same name. Its sentimental aura and mildly punchy bass help close out the album beautifully. Nearly four years later, the electronic soul singer finally releases his debut studio album after much delay. As its release date beckoned, my expectations for Process expanded to above-average height. I had never heard a Sampha-related track that I didn’t like.
The singles leading up to this album were impressive. “Timmy’s Prayer,” which I heard around the time TLOP bonus cut “Saint Pablo” leaked, is an account of coping with the regret of taking his lover for granted. This display of intimate lyricism further vindicates his right to share the studio with the aforementioned heavyweight artists. With that said, I still wasn’t itching to hear an entire album from Sampha. But that immediately changed once I heard “Blood on Me”. The hypnotic piano strokes in the chorus; the retro drum programming; the background vocal harmony; they feel like perfection. His lyrical depiction of a haunting dreamworld is both eerie and liberating. Sampha recounts a nightmare in which his innermost secrets manifest into hooded assassins that chase him endlessly — to the point where even when he opens his eyes, they are waiting for him at the edge of his bed. This metaphor tackles the infinite cycle that comes about when we bury our fears deep inside in hope of an out-of-sight-out-of-mind resolution. Little did he (or we) know, doing so only waters fear’s deceptive seed.
The depth and emotion brewing within Sampha’s pen is without a doubt admirable. However, his vocals laid over top of Process‘s sparse production fail to captivate the ear consistently. His voice is quite unique, even gorgeous at times. But the primary melodies here are essentially too cohesive. Most of these tracks have a similar dreamy sound that makes it hard to separate one song from another. Customarily I insist that artists tighten up their track lists, but here I ended up wishing this wasn’t so compact. Without any features, Sampha’s vocals grew tiresome and a bit dull for my liking. His breathy falsetto dangles on the edge of a cracked collapse more often than not. The dreamlike sonic setting Process presents forces listeners to key in on Sampha’s song structure and vocal performance. Unfortunately, this album’s filler tracks keep it from being an impactful debut, making for a top-heavy project that offers little beyond the songs we’ve already heard.