Album Review: Sampha - Process

An artist like Sampha could only exist in a post-James Blake world.

Combining the skittering tension of electronic-based music with the groove of contemporary R&B, the British singer, songwriter, and producer has been making a name for himself over the past few years by collaborating with a number of marquee name artists—most notably, and most recently, popping up on a non-album Kanye West track, “Saint Pablo” (although it would later be added to subsequent versions of The Life of Pablo) and on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

Following the release of two solo EPs, Process is Sampha’s full-length debut—a ten-track effort that, somewhat hastily, covers the ground of all he finds sonically interesting, which in the end, makes for a slightly jarring, uneven listening experience.

Born Sampha Sisay, Process begins by showing his flair for the dramatic and the paranoid—“Plastic 100°C” begins innocuously enough before growing in its dizzying theatricality and scope; the same can be said for the desperate, unnerving, and epic bombast of “Blood on Me.”

Because Process draws its sound from so many different styles, the pacing begins to shift and slow down rather early on. The album’s single, “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” is charming enough in its reflective nostalgia, is catchy enough in its simplicity, but in its arrival, it, as well as the short piece that follows, drain the energy from the album’s sequencing.

That give and take in pacing continues in the album’s second half. Sisay is able to pull things back up with the jittering, slinky, very modern R&B leaning “Reverse Faults,” which is one of the album’s finer moments, as is “Timmy’s Prayer,” a slow burning and soulful jam, but the balancing act of myriad atmospheric tones turns out to be too much for Sisay to handle, because as it concludes, Process succumbs to buckling under its own weight, ambitions, and pretentions.

It’s by no means a bad album, and the ability for a lot of the songs on here to get stuck in your head shows what a capable songwriter Sisay is; however, the album itself seems to be structured and designed to want to impress the listener while attempting the façade of modesty. It’s a big sounding album, and Sisay is armed with an ethereal vocal prowess, but throughout, aside from the real lack of focus, there seems to be some kind of unspoken restraint that makes it seem like he is trying to downplay just how big and polished it all is, as if to say, “Yes, I want my album to impress you but don’t tell anyone that is what I want.”

For listeners of both modern R&B and electronic music, Process is worth a listen, and you may even find yourself thinking about the melody of “Like The Piano” throughout your day (it’s a pretty good pop song dressed up in the guise of something rather skeletal) but because this album is just so contemporary, it’s not the kind of record I see aging very well at all, nor do I see it being the kind of thing I’d be returning to for subsequent listens all the way through.

It also seems worth noting, as a post-script of sorts, that I’ve been sitting with this record for like two weeks at this point, and now that it’s out in the world, I have read two reviews of it that a) both praise it up and down, and b) claim that tucked away inside is a concept album about grief.

It’s one thing that I play the role of the contrarian and form an opinion opposite of others when it comes to the merit’s of a specific album—this happens all the time. But it’s another thing that even after numerous listens, the idea of Process being a concept album of any kind was totally lost on me? Perhaps Pitchfork is reading too much into it? Or perhaps I am not reading into it enough. Maybe it’s just not that obvious; maybe it is buried somewhere between Sisay’s pleasant, if not a little warbled sounding voice, and all the endless tracks of instrumentation and atmosphere.

While all of this doesn’t make me doubt my feelings on the record (I’m not suddenly going to like it more) it does make me wonder, ever so slightly, if I am just doing it wrong.

Process is out now via Young Turks.