Release Date: February 3, 2017
buzz Factor: 7.5/10
It’s almost hard to believe that this is Sampha’s debut album. He’s appeared in a lot of high-profile work over the years — he was SBTRKT’s muse on a lot of their early work, he was that guy that Drake and Kanye called in when they needed an affecting chorus. His power is, of course, his voice. It’s powerful sure, but there’s an internal echoing quality to it that almost makes it sound like he’s pleading with you. This voice is what carries his debut, “Process,” and for the most part, this reliance on his voice’s emotional power works.
The album starts with “Plastic 100 C,” a circular, slightly over-long song. It’s inviting at first, with a plucked figure and subdued rattles circling around behind Sampha’s liquid phrasing, but it repeats this for the whole five minutes without seeming to build to any cathartic moment. “Blood on Me” is similar, frenetic where “Plastic” is simmering, but again doesn’t seem to build to a moment of release. It’s a powerful song, driven by a cowbell beat that I can’t decide if I love or hate. It also features some of the stronger Sampha belts that we get on the album. But there’s something missing on these first few cuts. They’re good, but don’t invite the type of emotion that his voice is capable of delivering. There’s a distance to them that doesn’t seem to suit Sampha as well as his more intimate tracks.
The first one of those that we get is “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” It’s a piano ballad, but holy shit is it good. Backed by a chorus of himself, Sampha delivers an ode to his mother, to his art, and the key to what makes him work. He’s at his best when he’s inviting the listener into the world of his songs. The next few songs follow suit. “Take Me Inside” starts with the same warbly piano from “Piano,” and functions more as a bridge between that song and the wonderful “Reverse Faults.” “Faults” is circular, much like “Plastic 100 C,” but while in “Plastic” Sampha seems to be singing over the instrumentals, here he’s moving through them, his voice layered at a variety of points in the mix.
“Under” follows next, another song where the vocals shine but production lacks. His voice really is a marvel, able to twist, jump, and flow, and most of all, make a memorable vocal phrase. He pulls this off to great effect on “Timmy’s Prayer,” a dirge that builds on itself to a drumbeat breakdown, with some of the most hummable lines on the whole album. The album finishes with two low-key songs in a row, the bouncing “Incomplete Kisses” and the wintry “What Shouldn’t I Be?” They don’t reach some of the album’s highs, but are solid songs nonetheless. Overall, this debut is a showcase of a phenomenally gifted singer who is still in the process (ha) of finding the right production to match his emotional power.