Review: Sampha, Process

Induced and refined by the emotions it conjures, Sampha’s long-awaited debut emerges as the vibrant soundscapes everyone knew Sampha Sissay was capable of, and then some.
Publish date:
Sampha Process, 2017, album cover

For nearly 30 years, marine biologists have tracked a whale whose ‘song’ sounds like no other. Known as the ‘Lonely Whale,’ the mysterious mammal sings in a higher frequency than members of its species, leading many to believe this male may be entirely alone. But year after year his song remains the same, leading others to conjecture this whale is not lonely but rather independent; howling into the blue abyss is not his cruel fate but his catharsis, a chance to provide his own perspective to the world’s narrative. In a similar manner, English neo-soul singer Sampha Sissay brought his own song by going beyond others’ understanding, a lone howler whose story now arrives after years of isolated cultivation.

A lush record that looks to the self for material, Process, true to its name, dissects aspects of Sissay’s life (fame, religion, family, and of course, love) using his trademark vulnerability as a means of analysis. Somber, but not necessarily sad, Process maps Sissay’s emotional journey by confronting his feelings head-on; like the seven stages of grief, each emotion is unpacked and experienced through stirring cries, clever meshing of classical and electronic instruments, and a personified piano. “Waves come crashing over me/I’m somewhere/An open sea,” he recounts, struggling to float against the pressures placed upon him. The water metaphors are apt for Sissay’s voice, a falsetto drenched in its own sentimentality, which decides to swim against the grain than embrace it.

Arriving with the yelps of a beached mammal, “Plastic 100*C” depicts Sissay’s entrance into stardom, where excess, adoration, and camera glare blaze down on his back. Sissay, whose profile and praise has intensified formidably in the past few years, is bound to this glory and bares it like a cross. It leaves him a prime target in “Blood On Me”, a protest anthem that dissents by embracing its fears rather than fighting them. Not to say that it isn’t courageous, far from it. Sissay rebels by accentuating the target on his back, thereby posing the question: do you simply see the target, or do you see past it?

As the record progresses, these motifs spill into Sissay’s personal life. Urgency is evoked on “Kora Sings”, a rush of strings and glitchy tones evoking the style of his frequent collaborator, SBTRKT. Utilizing an actual kora, a stringed instrument from West Africa, the track jitters with nervous energy as an anxious Sissay struggles to balance family amidst fame. Simultaneously overwhelmed and overjoyed by existence itself, “Kora Sings” celebrates earthly beauty by acknowledging one cannot fully appreciate it all. This existentialism haunts Sissay throughout Process, and allows for remarkably acute observations of human behavior.

Matching Sissay’s emotional musicianship are his remarkable lyrical talents; when was the last time a man rhymed “channel” with “soprano,” much less admitted to singing in one? Susceptible situations are where Sissay thrives, uninterested in coyness and more concerned with honesty: “You struck a chord and I listened” impacts softly but firmly, and pushes Sissay deeper in “Reverse Faults”. To make his messages stick, Sissay behaves contrarily to normal human mannerisms. Rather than play the part of the cynical observer, he cares too much, and in doing so strikes nerves more poignantly.

Comfort is found in the solace of his piano, who you could argue is the only real “feature” on Process. ‘She’ is given life on “(No One Knows Me) The Piano”, a heartfelt ode to his mother and his childhood home. Old friends of Sissay’s, the keys paint a picture of a loving household where a young artist learned what it means to express yourself. “Within my chest you know me best” he serenades to his confidante and companion, a revelation more amorous than anywhere else on Process.

Though compelled largely by heightened emotions, Process ends on a reserved note, albeit a lovely one. Carried by a soothing harp and Sissay’s layered croons, “What Shouldn’t I Be” relays a moment of zen following a rollercoaster of sentiment. When he says “You can always come home,” Sissay refers to the shelter of the body, the one-and-only true and constant companion a person has. As lonely as it seems, this revelation feels warm coming from Sissay’s mouth. Within himself he finds the strength to embrace existence, an epiphany achieved after ‘processing’ his feelings thoroughly and honestly. And like the loneliest whale, he did all while sounding like nobody else. A MINUS