You can get an idea of what Sampha sounds like by looking at a list of his previous collaborations: the production-focused pop of Jessie Ware, the forward-thinking R&B of Frank Ocean, the spry boom-bap of Drake and 40. You’ve heard his voice rise wryly on tracks by Kanye and both Knowles sisters, a rare trifecta of collaborators. And yet in another way Sampha couldn’t be further from these artists. He’s a bedroom beat-maker who barely even sang on his first EP and has spent years quietly tinkering on a debut full-length, a guy who once told The Fader, “It’s not possible for me to get famous.” Process is the remarkable result of those years of work, a biographical album of liminal moments stitched into 10 songs so rich with emotion and sonic invention that they seem to each be self-contained ecosystems. Listening to them can feel like discovering a new solar system. It is a star-making album. And yet, despite this, Sampha remains just out of reach, evoking Björk not just in the lushness of his settings but in the elusive way he hides within them.
This is in part due to its subject. Process was recorded while Sampha’s mother battled cancer, and the swell of emotions he felt—even before her death in September 2015—dominate the album. His cool, husky voice is up to the task of conveying this sort of earth-shattering grief, in part because he never fully gives in to it. The ballad “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” roots his sense of loss to a series of piano figures that sound like a sun-drenched Sunday morning; “Kora Sings” places his musings about a mother-son relationship amidst ecological imagery and uptempo electronic pulses. These are songs that don’t easily track to simple adjectives; the most easily categorizable track on the album (the paranoid “Blood On Me”) also functions as his most club-ready anthem, and it is about Brood-like sweatshirt monsters chasing him all over the place. As on Dual, his 2013 EP, he views relationships not in binary positive or negative terms, instead weaving his lyrics into a richer web of memories. Unlike Dual, which floated gently by, the music here is equally singular, whether it’s the wheezing harmonium of “Timmy’s Prayer” or the solemn ambient hum of “What Shouldn’t I Be?”
Each of the 10 songs has a distinguishing sonic detail like this, their production shifts all the more effective because they hinge on song structure. (This is why the “took the brake pads out the car” hook on “Reverse Faults” never fails to make you gasp.) Minimal and tasteful, each space is appointed with an unfussy artfulness, much like Solange’s masterful A Seat At The Table. Like that album, Process can traffic at times in Kinfolk magazine luxury and Goop affirmations (“You don’t know how strong you are!” he cries at one point). But, also like that album, he sells these sentiments as part of a rawer emotional experience. In the end, it makes sense that the album seems to phase between so many emotions: Its subject isn’t death or even grief but the very process by which these things become a part of life. Process is an exercise in finding beauty in even the tragedy of a parent’s death, a record of singular probity and hard-earned optimism. It’s the best R&B debut since FKA Twigs’ LP1.