There was something uniquely moving about seeing Sampha suddenly emerge from the behind-the-scenes features world, where he'd been grinding for years, and release Process to huge fanfare in early February. Still one of the most illuminating albums of 2017, it proved the artist could be more than just a ghostly voice adding intrigue to a Beyoncé track or Kanye West hook. He crafted an sensitive and evocative blend of electronic soul entirely his own.
Sampha is here to stay, and it's time the world got to know him better. Cue: Process the short film, a visual companion to the album, which debuted Thursday night at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and opened to the world on Apple Music Friday.
Directed by Kahlil Joesph, one of the directors behind Beyoncé's Lemonade and author of similar visual epics for Flying Lotus, FKA Twigs and Kendrick Lamar, the film is set simultaneously in Sampha Sisay's South London hometown and in his ancestral Freetown, Sierra Leone. It traces stories of the Sisay family's migration from the former to the latter, flashing rapidly between the worlds to paint a picture of Sampha's ancestry and influences, à la Lemonade.
However, while the films offer similar visual touchstones, the symbology in Process is far more abstract. Disorienting, anxious, achingly beautiful, it does what every good visual accompaniment should: add unforeseen dimensions to the music and make the experience of listening measurably more rewarding and profound.
Where Lemonade offered a new, stylized stained-glass window into the mind of an artist the world thought they knew, Sampha's Process has a little more freedom in the way it creates its narrative. For most, he's a blank slate. They know the voice, but little else besides. Lemonade had to smash cracks in Beyoncé's idillic marriage to explore her Houston and Southern roots in fresh ways, and find ways to reveal her fascination with pan-African religious iconography without coming off as contrived. It was far more methodical in the way it revealed these truths.
Process functions more like a kaleidoscope. It offers a view into Sampha's mind via a blistering array of images that never take full, distinct shapes. They lay a mosaic foundation of the artist's internal world.
One of the hallmarks of Joseph's style is his radical juxtaposing of loud, staged scenes and intimate moments. It's in full effect here: Dancers create intricate patterns with their prone bodies in a dry pool in Freetown's National Siaka Steven Stadium; Sampha jams on with a wheelchair-bound guitarist in a London metro. African men march through the jungle carrying surfboards; Sampha sits at a piano singing at the end of a London alley. The images blend with one another, arraying themselves like a loosely connected web of memories and associations, anchored by the recurring shots of Sampha at his instrument.
It feels like a very literal illustration of a Sampha's creative process — a vision the stories and memories that informed his afro-beat and grime-inflected brand of soul.
By the end of the film, Sampha comes off as a shy, vulnerable conduit for the collection of cultures and experiences that have shaped him. "He's not naturally a showman, but he's got something in him that has to come out," one of the few lines of dialogue in the film, spoken by Sampha's brother, reads. Another, a written line, makes seeming nod to the his mother's death, which he toasts to throughout the album: "I'm connected to you wherever you are."
It's biographical, but not biography. Those expecting to come away with an exacting picture of who Sampha is as an artist and how he got here, will be disappointed. But those who are willing to let Joseph's bewildering cinematography breeze through their minds and pose its fleeting questions, will come away with a new respect for Sampha's heart-wrenching and illuminating soul.
For those without an Apple Music account looking to catch a screening, the streaming service will be setting up storefront showings between March 3 and-April 14 and projections of the film on Friday, Saturday, April 7 and April 14 in two cities: New York and London. Find out details about the location and times here.
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March 31, 2017, 3:42 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect information from a press release.