For my birthday this year, I gave myself a little treat.
Entering the Memorial Coliseum with my friend, let’s call her Z, on a brisk April eve, a dark sky covered in clouds, the streets glazed with rain, the arena busked with energy. A raised x, doubled over glossy sheets hung one-by-one across the concourse.
An excitement jumped between us. Two tesla coils lobbing lightning one between the other on each electric word, not needing light to find the way to our seats. Actually, maybe that was the open seating. Nonetheless, sentences zipped between Z and me.
“What do you think they’re going to play?”
“Please ‘Islands,’ please ‘Islands,’ please ‘Islands,’ please ‘Islands,’ please ‘Islands.’”
“I’m just hoping anything from Coexist not named “Angels” gets played but I’m not taking any bets.”
“Hmmm, do you know the opener?”
“Not at all.”
And with that, Sampha arrived in the darkness the stage began to glow. Then, with low-fidelity thumps, organic synthesizers and velveteen vocals, he began to woo a crowd over. I didn’t quite get it at first, though.
Musically, it was clear as day. But emotionally, I was missing something. After listening to his debut, I realized Sampha Sislay was missing something too: his mother. Process was his attempt to reconcile the dead with himself.
Paint me in the color of astonished, xx, because Sampha’s potent formula for clean, heavy hitting R&B, hinted at in extended player Dual and guest spots among Solange and Kanye, comes to full realization on Process.
Mechanical drums on “Blood on Me,” “Under” and “Timmy’s Prayer” come alive and pound the bone and sinew of the sternum while the piano despairs quietly, making scarce and only palpitating when required.
It, robot, barely registers a heartbeat until “Blood on Me.” But then the game changes.
Crafting man from the machine, Sampha’s tracks take their first few breaths before crying with pain. Sounds awful right? Not so—if Frida Kahlo has taught us anything—pain unpacks beauty. Sampha just wants to make sure we understand that point.
So when he delivers the piano melody on “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” the heart pumps faster and eyes blink tears away as the keys pick one up, bring one down and then leave them to stew. That small but crucial change literally will pull the listener up into its arms and rock them to sleep.
Sampha also employs caesura to maximum effect—driving to the edge of the line, before freefalling off the emotional edge:
And you took hold of me and never, never, never
Let me go
‘Cos no one knows me like the piano
In my mother’s home
The result? R&B vinylstein transforms into the real Bicentennial Man, giving more reasons for wanting to be human than most people have for being. The desperate plea for humanity emanating from Sampha’s vocals throughout brings this record to such frightening life, making it so heart-thrummingly harrowing, yet immaculate in its conception.
Music is time manipulation—creating a parallel mode of time not just documenting its own passing* but also evoking emotions relating to the time frame. The piano must make the first move, introducing notes before fading to the back of the mix only to reemerge catch listener again as they fall.
Cuts like “Blood on Me,” incinerate the trees of the emotional forest, and leaving the better half of Process to take place in desolate space after the blaze has burned through.
From hillsides covered in the needle-whiskers husk of trees to steam still rising from the corpses of fallen stubble under the cool, crawling mists. Hell, with the ash still tumbling down the ethereal switchback, the melodies of “Kora Sings,” “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses,” grow with a melancholic lightness hinting at hope.
Snaking up like new redwood shoots, they take a while to notice, but the life is there for any inquisitive ears. It takes a couple listens to fully hear how the synthesizer changes on the slow sly on back tracks like “Reverse Faults” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?”
The rhythms start to shoegaze, the drum machines beat into background and the world as Sampha slows down and snails up. Process’ only fault is the muse of its creator. They prepare for, but never segue into anything, remaining agonizingly slow to make a point.
This can be forgiven on closer “What Shouldn’t I Be?” taking the listener in on a soft landing back into reality and a 24-hour clock, but upon first listen, “Take Me Inside” stops the record’s momentum dead.
Thank god “Reverse Faults” is there to push through the falling inertia. The most valuable cut, however, goes to “Under” for making sure Process never devolved into an album of two halves. “Take Me Inside’s” segue into “Reverse Faults” does improve as the listens pile up, but it’s not a favourite.
Nevertheless, Sampha’s debut is astonishingly and quietly beautiful R&B. A modern-day Tapestry riddled with grief in memoriam and engagingly electronic in proportion. It’s the death of childhood storybooks and the fracturing of fairytales.
It’s the most riveting R&B experience of the year and intertwines itself within the fog, shoegazing to utterly quiet horror, silent love and wistful whispers.
Quick Impressions: Process will make you hug you tighter. It will make you love harder. It might make you cry. But it will affect you emotionally. Sampha’s debut is so frighteningly human yet so immaculate in construction. Each track will put you through an emotional ringer and my god, does it deserve as many listens as possible.
- “Plastic 100ºC”
- “Blood on Me”
- “Kora Sings”
- “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”
- “Take Me Inside”
- “Reverse Faults”
- “Timmy’s Prayer”
- “Incomplete Kisses”
- “What Shouldn’t I Be?”
*As in becoming a marker, a “Hotel California” ago meaning roughly six-and-a-half minutes ago