February 3, 2017

Could Sampha Sisay be a new, avant Seal? In the early ’90s, Seal broke out with edgy dance-soul hits like ‘Killer’ (alongside Adamski) and ‘Crazy’. He’d go on to become an adult contemporary superstar with ‘Kiss From A Rose’. But Seal found a way for Brit soulsters to distinguish themselves from their US counterparts with his underground club sensibilities. Sampha – that South London singer, songwriter and producer – surveys soul, electro and clubdom on his debut, Process, too. Indeed, he belongs to the same post-dubstep milieu as his Young Turks/XL Recordings labelmate FKA twigs (whose ‘Numbers’ he co-produced), Laura Mvula and James Blake. Yet his sound is even more amorphous.

Sampha’s musical journey began when, from three, he taught himself to play the family piano – which his father Joe had purchased from a neighbour. A few years later, Joe died from cancer. But the piano was a constant in Sampha’s life. His tinkling entertained – and soothed – his beloved mother, Binty. As a teen, Sampha embraced electronic and urban music culture. He cut beats. Today Sampha alternates between piano balladry and IDM.

Process has long been anticipated. Sampha circulated his first EP, Sundanza, back in 2010. Admittedly, it was a limited-edition release of mostly instrumentals. Sampha then became Aaron Jerome’s shadow in SBTRKT, contributing to various projects as vocalist, writer and producer. His presence was felt all over SBTRKT’s acclaimed self-titled debut. Sampha even toured with SBTRKT’s live show – donning a mask. In 2013 he issued a second EP, Dual.

By this time, Sampha was freely collaborating with other Brits (notably Jessie Ware). Extraordinarily, he was discovered by urban-pop’s luminaries. The music media flipped when Sampha hooked up with Drake for Nothing Was The Same (Drizzy’s ‘Too Much’ is a reworking of his own piano single). Sampha has since liaised with Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Solange. Still, no album appeared.

Nonetheless, Sampha isn’t Jay Electronica – famous for teasing LPs. Beyond those career triumphs, he faced a family crisis – his mother diagnosed with cancer. Sampha would be her carer. Binty passed in late 2015. Sampha’s anguish, and grief pervades Process – commenced the year prior. The title alludes to the cognitive, rather than any creative methodology. Process is a personal, pensive and cathartic album. But it isn’t always melancholy – let alone maudlin. The dominant theme is transcendence.

Sampha recorded Process in professional, not bedroom, studios – even randomly travelling to Norway. He likewise enlisted a co-producer in Rodaidh McDonald – an XL in-houser whose recent studio gigs have included Låpsley’s Long Way Home and The xx’s I See You. As such, Process, comprising 10 intricate songs, represents Sampha’s most assured – and refined – work. And it’s centred on Sampha – with no shiny guests. Yeezy has a writing credit on the lead single ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ – electro-soul sampling seasoned soul man Timmy Thomas – but it isn’t mentioned in pressers. Crucially, Sampha’s voice – now as much his instrument as the piano and redolent of Stevie Wonder’s – is prominent.

Opening with ‘Plastic 100°C’ – celestial, lilting neo-trip-hop – Sampha confronts his own mortality through anxiety (and psychosomatic disorder). More urgent is the clubby ‘Blood On Me’ – which might be Sampha’s ‘Crazy’. He honours his West African heritage on the percussive, albeit untraditional, ‘Kora Sings’ – its eponymous kora played by Josh Doughty.

However, it’s the plaintive piano ballad ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ that is surely Process‘ classic. Sampha figuratively sings about his childhood, and his mum – transforming the sentimental into the eternally poetic: “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home/You would show me I have something, some people call a soul.” He’s performed it on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Though Process reveals fragile songs, Sampha hasn’t lost his fascination with bold sonic experimentation. After all, he does DJ. A contra-banger, ‘Reverse Faults’ is abstract techno – not far from Arca. Process was worth the wait, Sampha, The Great.

‘Process’ is out Friday 3rd February. Sampha will tour Australian in May.

Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano