The categorically elusive Sampha arrived in 2010 with a co-headlined SBTRKT collaboration and a solo EP, then became known more for supporting roles as a songwriter, producer, vocalist, and keyboardist. After he recorded with fellow Brits Lil Silva and Jessie Ware, his commercial presence was magnified by Drake, whose Nothing Was the Same featured him on a couple tracks. Within a few years, Sampha had collected credits on works by a slew of mainstream artists, including Beyoncé, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange, as he assisted comparatively marginal but significant figures like FKA Twigs and Bullion. He also inched toward the completion of Process, an artful and accessible debut full-length. Admirably, the album is without opportunistic reciprocal collaborations, unless one inconspicuous Kanye West co-composition counts. It's largely a solitary and intensely personal effort, co-produced by Rodaidh McDonald, ranging from placid piano ballads to urgent electro-soul. All the narratives, expressed in anguished, repentant, and haunted terms, befit a voice that always sounds as if it's on the brink of choking back tears. Sampha's vocals can be an acquired taste, but they're instantly identifiable and heartfelt. They're all the more compelling when detailing interpersonal ruptures, drawing imagery like "I took the shape of a letter, slipped myself underneath your door," or in a state of agitation, "gasping for air." The album reaches its most stirring point in "Kora Sings," built on an alternately serene and jittery production, over which Sampha sings to his dying mother, trailing off after "You don't know how strong you are." None of it is particularly light. Sampha's exquisite melodies and detailed productions nonetheless make all the references to longing, disturbed sleep, injurious heat, and shattered glass go down easy. "Reverse Faults," sparkling low-profile trap with a dizzying combination of smeared glints and jutting background vocals, might be the best display of Sampha's skill set. Another marvel is the hurtling, breakbeat-propelled "Blood on Me," its last 40 seconds juiced with some of the nastiest synthesized bass since Alexander O'Neal's "Fake." In a way, this all makes the previous output seem merely preliminary.
by Andy Kellman