Even if you've never heard the name, you've heard the voice. In the past three years, Sampha's breathy overwhisper has graced tracks by Kanye West, Drake, Solange and Frank Ocean, crafting subtle hooks that immediately call for close listening.
Parlaying with such weighty names is risky business for a prodigy trying to make a name in a space as crowded as today's alternative R&B market. It's obviously a good way to get exposure and look at how things function at the highest levels of the craft, but in regards to developing one's own style and brand, it can prove detrimental.
It's happened to scores of young co-signed artists who found brief moments of brilliance under the tutelage of more established acts, but never grew to find a way to distinguish themselves. Thankfully, Sampha's been conscious of that. His debut Process, out Friday through Young Turks, is truly his own — a thing of aching, self-reflective beauty. It feels rare and elusive, a quiet counterpoint to the pitch of real life in these fraught times.
Sampha exhibits a tremendous range on Process, and no one particular mood shines through as the strongest or most effortless, per say.
He prays for respect and peace on the album's opener "Plastic 100°C," over a light, echoey fingerpicked instrumental. He flees unknown pursuers in "Blood On Me" bringing out some of the rawer edges of his voice, which he actually honed by running around the studio "trying to make it feel like I was genuinely in that situation," as he told Genius.
"No One Knows Me Like the Piano" captures a crushing moment of intimacy with Sampha singing of his mother and the piano that helped him cope with the pain of her death. It has a resonant meta-significance, simultaneously showing and telling listeners about the strange emotional powers music can hold over its audience.
There's something truly magic about those times when music, out of all the stimuli one faces in the course of the day, manages to massage one's heartstrings back into feeling. Sampha proves on Process he's truly mastered this ability to create these profound introspective moments — spaces where one's personal anxieties and preoccupations pale in comparison to the beauty of the words and tones coming in.
Because Sampha knows these rules, he can effectively break them to create even more intrigue.
The album's back half is more adventurous with the way it uses rhythm and dynamics to elevate Sampha's ghostly confessionals into more transcendent moments. Faint clipped trap beats add a subtle lift to the verses on "Incomplete Kisses" and "Under" — an effect reminiscent of "Higgs" and "Deathwish (ASR)" off Frank Ocean's Endless, an album Sampha lent his voice to last year.
The more solitary ballads share echoes of Solange's famously intimate A Seat at the Table, while moments of Kanye's unpredictable sample layering peek through on songs like "Under." Sampha has been a very good student, taking nibbles of each of these artists' gifts, but never enough to weigh down or overshadow his music's unique dreaminess.
Nuance feels like one of the first musical aspects that jumps ship when cultural dialogue reaches the fever pitch it's held throughout the beginning of 2017. Preachy, ragey or entirely escapist music often better matches the chaos, manifesting in entirely meaningless (though delightful) chart toppers like "Bad and Boujee," or the war ready chants of Run the Jewels. But it also makes those moments of soft transcendence that much more brilliant. Sampha's Process stands out as one such gem, a gentle announcement of the arrival of a new light in R&B, for those ready to listen.
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