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When Sampha Sisay was three years old, his father brought a piano into the family’s Morden, England home. It wasn’t a grand gesture—just a way to get his sons away from the TV. Yet for Sampha, the youngest of five siblings, the instrument became a vessel for his personal growth. It helped enlighten the young boy, offering solace and purpose, commencing a spiritual journey that he’s still navigating. In Sampha’s world, the piano is one of the few things that’s always been there. It’s never gotten sick or faded away from disease. “You would show me I had something some people call a soul,” he sings on “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a gorgeous ballad and one of many standouts from Process, Sampha’s remarkable debut album.
The song—much like the LP—comes from a deeply meditative place, reflecting the innermost thoughts of a man still coping with heavy loss. His father, Joe, passed away from lung cancer in 1998. His mother, Binty Sisay, died of cancer in September 2015. Throughout the spare electro-soul of Process, you feel his mom’s spirit in the stillness, pushing her son in his quest for understanding. Sampha’s endured his own health struggles as well. He once discovered a lump in his throat while on tour; despite an endoscopy, doctors couldn’t determine a cause. It became a catalyst for the singer to assess his own mortality here. “Sleeping with my worries,” goes the opener “Plastic 100ºC,” “I didn’t really know what that lump was.”
Sampha’s career dates back to 2010 and the release of Sundanza, his first EP. In 2011, Sampha was featured heavily on producer SBTRKT’s debut album; his second EP, Dual, followed in 2013. Sampha played the background from there, turning up on tracks with Drake (“Too Much,” “The Motion”), Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”), Frank Ocean (“Alabama”), and Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”). His presence was strong, even if his voice—a gentle, shimmering falsetto—added light touches to the scenery. Despite its delicate texture, Sampha’s inflection hovers perfectly above the music, cracking at certain pitches to convey grief.
In a way, Process feels like a concept album on which Sampha rediscovers himself. The musician’s mother was diagnosed with cancer the same year Sundaza came out, and as her primary caregiver, he naturally focused his attention on her well-being. Now, he’s attempting to reconnect with his core while coping with despair. In the past, he’d mix his voice to fit within the instrumental; on Process, he makes it the focal point. Co-produced with Rodaidh McDonald, Process brings to mind James Blake while nodding to mainstream hip-hop. On “Under,” in particular, Sampha utilizes a sleek trap beat.
Even the album’s most upbeat tracks are shaded with tension. “You’ve been with me since the cradle,” Sampha recalls on “Kora Sings,” presumably referring to his mom. “You’ve been with me, you’re my angel, please don’t you disappear.” With “Blood on Me,” the album’s second single, the vocalist sings through heavy breaths, seemingly haunted by his own insecurities. It addresses the fear of moving forward after personal trauma, and for a quiet soul like Sampha, it also speaks to the panic of navigating the world by himself. “I’m on this road now,” he exclaims. “I’m so alone now/Swerving out of control now.”
On album closer “What Shouldn’t I Be?,” you feel Sampha’s air of prolonged detachment. It catches the singer at his most vulnerable, trying to remember the sketches of his childhood. Close your eyes, and you can almost see Sampha’s family—happy, affectionate, and together. “I should visit my brother,” he ponders, “but I haven’t been there in months.” His self-imposed isolation doesn’t outweigh the song’s overall premise: “You can always come home.”Share