The first thing you notice about Sampha Sisay on his debut album Process is his distinctly British voice. In the first minute of the opening track “Plastic 100°C” he provides lead vocals, sings his own backing chords, and can even be heard cooing atmospherically in the background. He relies predominantly on his chest voice even as he scrapes the upper limits of his range and despite its quavering, his vocals remain steadfast. The wobble is almost artful as it’s an inborn flaw re-purposed as emotive vibrato and his middleweight tenor is unmistakable in a world saturated with R&B singers.
But to call Process an R&B record would be an inaccurate statement. There isn’t a name for the refined sound Sampha has created for himself as the album’s sonic textures are born out of electronic synths and equally inspired by pizzicato strings. Its vibe is foggy and minimalist (Sampha co-produced the LP with Rodaidh McDonald) and despite tracks like “Blood On Me” being built on top of dense, intricate beats, it seamlessly juxtaposes stilling ballads (“Like The Piano”) with sporadic double-time grooves (“Kora Sings”). And just when you think you have his style pegged, the gorgeous rubato album closer “What Shouldn’t I Be?” pulls the rug out from underneath you and leaves you breathless.
With his emotional turbulence being the common denominator, Process is as much about Sampha refining his creative methods as it is about processing his grief. In that sense, it might be accurate to identify its genre as some sort of futuristic soul because underneath all the production, he’s just a guy with a piano that’s trying to unpack his sorrow. And really, isn’t that what soul music is about? The genius of singers like Bill Withers was that their pain was so relatable and they were able to trigger a cathartic empathy in their listeners. Labeling Sampha as the next Withers is a disservice to his originality, but if his debut is a sign of things to come, it might not be too far from the mark.
Best Tracks: “Plastic 100°C”, “Reverse Faults”, “What Shouldn’t I Be?”