Sampha didn’t release one of the best albums of 2016, but he did show up on quite a few of them. The British R&B singer lent his backing vocals to “Alabama” from Frank Ocean’s Endless and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” from A Seat at the Table, as well as “Saint Pablo,” the late addition to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Yet the 28-year-old singer/songwriter (full name: Sampha Sisay) had already been building up a hell of a mixtape in the past half-decade, spreading his buttery smooth croon all over gems by SBTRKT, Jessie Ware, Katy B and Drake. The company he keeps is an ongoing testament not just to his impeccable taste (Kanye West’s recent endorsement of Trump aside) but of the kind of starpower his track record demands. To be a supporting player on records by some of the best-selling artists in recent years is an accomplishment in and of itself; all Sampha needed was a proper album of his own.
Process, Sampha’s debut full-length, has been a long time coming. It arrives more than three years after the release of his second EP, Dual, and seven years after his debut EP Sundanza, and comes bearing the weight of that prior work with Yeezy and Drizzy. Yet unlike his American collaborators, Sampha doesn’t make big statement albums—at least not yet. Process‘ strengths are often in its subtleties. It’s not quite right to call it a collection of ballads, but the vast majority of its songs are slow burners including its first single, “Timmy’s Prayer,” originally released last year. Over a bed of slow-jam trip-hop beats, Sampha offers a series of sexily melancholy devotionals, such as “I am your prisoner.” There’s so much more space in it than much of what ends up on pop radio rotation. It’s barely there, but what is there makes its presence known.
Sampha is the quiet type, particularly as pop music is concerned, but he doesn’t have to raise his voice to leave an impact. From the opening notes of first track “Plastic 100°C” he begins a gradual and gorgeous build-up of ambient keyboard twinkle and distorted radio transmissions. At no point does “Plastic” ever erupt into EDM pop overload or dubstep-drop mode, but when Sampha reaches the chorus—”It’s so hot I’ve been melting down here/I’m made out of plastic down here“—the transition feels dramatic beyond its decibel level. There’s a similar effect on “Reverse Faults,” whose pulsing, sexy ambient pop struts with the less-is-more allure of The xx or FKA Twigs. Moments of fluttering synthesizer create a lightly psychedelic effect, but the minimalism of it ultimately makes it all the more compelling.
When Process reaches its extremes, they reveal Sampha’s remarkable talents even more profoundly. Single “Blood On Me” is Sampha at his least reserved, both darkly paranoid and irresistibly funky. In its opening verse, he sings, “grey hoodies/ they cover their heads/I can’t see their faces/ Can’t see, see, see…” through a series of exhausted breaths. It feels like a genuine moment of terror, but it gives way to a powerfully emotional chorus that finds a cross section of directness and desperation: “I swear they smell the blood on me/ I hear them comin’ for me.” “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” offers a tender and warm-hearted counterpoint to the dancefloor paranoia of “Blood On Me.” A beautiful, spare paean to the piano in his mother’s home, the track is a tribute to the power of music itself. “You would show me I have something people call a soul,” he sings, applying words to a deeply emotional and (usually) indescribable feeling that music can bring. It’s a secular hymn.
If Process isn’t an album that reveals itself so readily on first listen, it’s one that profits from intimacy. It’s optimal late at night or early in the morning, on headphones or in an empty room. The idea that an album is a “grower” is one that generally depends on the listener, but with Process it’s an asset rather than a liability. “Blood on Me” is the immediate standout, perhaps, but the Kate Bush-like art pop of “Kora Sings” and the hypnotic ambience of “What Shouldn’t I Be?” offer an intrigue worth returning to, unlocking and learning to love in new ways each time. Its quiet mystique nourishes the soul.