One trait of a true artist is the ability, or the desire (or the itchy, nagging urge), to turn the inside out—to stitch thoughts and feelings and experiences into something whole. Many musicians are constantly struggling for the right balance, a perfect symmetry of the personal and the artistic. South London-based producer/songwriter Sampha Sisay is a sucker for symmetry. It’s right there on the cover of his debut LP, Process, a meditative and magnificent record.
Sampha is an unassuming solo artist. He rose to notoriety with big-name collaborations, lending his skills as a pianist, producer, and vocalist to the likes of Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), Drake (“Too Much”), and Kanye (“Saint Pablo”). While these efforts give us a glimpse of Sampha the musician, none of them provide any insight into Sampha the man. He’s a man in search of something, repeating phrases not for our clarity, but his own (“If ever you’re listening”). He suffers from severe social anxiety, something rarely touched on in the music industry (“I swear they smell the blood on me”). Process is an album that bleeds catharsis; certain songs are prone to intense rumination. And yet the record is, on average, remarkably spare. Harmony is the goal, not the method. The slight bump of bass on “Plastic 100°C” sharply contrasts a gently plucked harp. “It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here,” Sampha sings with the earnest emotion of a man familiar with fire.
Process is a swell of emotion. Sisay recorded the record during his mother’s battle with cancer, a fight she eventually lost in September of 2015. Her presence is felt throughout. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a beautiful tribute, is a simple and elegant song. Sampha moved back into his childhood home to care for his ailing mother, and the piano became his confidant, a place to vent when he needed it the most. He sings “You would show me I had something people call a soul,” a wrenching, revelatory discovery. Later on, Sampha admits “I kept the feelings close.”
“Blood on Me,” a sonically brilliant track, finds Sampha on the run. It’s an onslaught of paranoia, an extremely anxious man confronting his numerous demons all by himself (“I’m so alone now, swervin’ out of control now”). The song, rather than being a mere product of paranoia, succumbs to the panic. Sampha described the song as being a wholly cathartic experience. The pages are stained with expository nonsense (“Don’t throw the paint on me,” “In this forest runnin’ away”), subject to a dark spatter of Sampha’s in the background, slackjawed and droning as the piano clanks. On the following track, “Kora Sings,” Sampha loudly declares “You don’t know how strong you are,” well before ending the track with “It’s just me, myself, and my gun / Remembering the times.”
Grief is a process. It’s not a sketched-out 12-step program, no, but it’s a process nonetheless. There are ups and downs, victories and failures. There is no clear-cut path out of that maze. Maybe the only way to escape it is to feel it. Sampha feels those ups and downs, every victory and failure. He fleshes them out on these tracks as though he were jotting in his journal. Process, by its very nature, has no reservations. The romantic spontaneity of “Incomplete Kisses” is so down-tempo it could have been recorded by Michael Bolton. “Don’t let your heart hide your story / Don’t let your mind hide your story,” Sampha pleads. “Wait too long, you’ll miss it.” For a man who spent many years of his professional career hiding in the shadows, Sampha Sisay is finally ready to live in the moment.
A glassy-eyed Sampha ends his catharsis on “What Shouldn’t I Be?” It’s Sampha at his most meditative—he has arrived at the point of notoriety, but what exactly does that mean? “It’s not all about me,” he says, and means it. Process is a marvelous debut from a talented young man still trying to find his place. A young man who just lost a parent. A young man who finds himself at the crux of fame, and doesn’t know which road to take. “I wake up in my own skin again,” he sings, and I can almost see a picture of his mother on the wall behind him.
Favorite tracks: “Plastic 100°C,” “Blood on Me,” “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” “Reverse Faults,” “Timmy’s Prayer,” “Incomplete Kisses”