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February 12, 2017

TEST SPIN: Sampha – Process

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Last Friday, Sampha dropped his debut album, Process. However, calling it a debut album betrays his experience. Sampha might not have a household name, but that’s not because of his lack of influence in the music industry. Before the release of Process, he collaborated with an extensive list of big names in the industry, including Frank Ocean, Kanye, Drake, Beyoncé, Solange, SBTRKT and Katy B. On his own, Sampha has released two EPs, Sundanza and Dual in 2010 and 2013, respectively.

Sampha’s life has been marred by tragedy. He lost his father to lung cancer when he was just nine. In 2015, his mother also passed away from cancer, while he was recording his album. In Process, he channels his grief to create an album full of compelling, emotional stories, despite using few words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Sampha’s piano melodies and minimal beats easily match that. They add depth and meaning to his words and give life to the album. On “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” Sampha tells the story of how he found music as an outlet. When he was just three, his parents purchased a piano from their neighbors, marking the beginning of Sampha’s life of music. He sings, “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home / You would show me I had something some people call a soul.” In music, he found his identity. However, an album like Process was never part of his plan. In an interview with The New York Times, Sampha revealed, “When I started, I was just making lots of beats, and I wasn’t even intending to sing over them.”

He got his start as a teenage producer on Myspace, surrounded by peers who were also trying to push the boundaries of music and discover new sounds. In that community, he found acceptance and validation. Emboldened, Sampha continued with the release of the all-instrumental Sundaza. He remained unnoticed until his collaboration with SBTRKT, which found its way into the right hands. Young Turks signed Sampha, beginning his string of high-profile collaborations.

Process was recorded with the help of co-producer Rodaidh McDonald, who has production credits that include all of The XX’s albums and two How To Dress Well albums, among others. To record, Sampha traveled to Ocean Sound Recordings, which bills itself as “Europe’s most stunning recording facility.” The breathtaking studio is set directly on the ocean near the mountains of Giske, Norway, isolated from urban distractions.

“Blood on Me,” one of the three singles released ahead of the album, is the most accessible and catchy song in terms of rhythm. In fact, one listen of this song was all it took to put Process on the list of albums I was looking forward to. Despite how easy it is to listen to, layered, cryptic vocals make it one of the most dense tracks on the album. “Kora Sings” trades the slower pace of most of the album for a faster and more optimistic one. The beat features bright synths and a vibrant chorus. The lyrics are less cheerful and more meditative. Referring to his deceased mother, Sampha sings, “You’ve been with me since the cradle / You’ve been with me, you’re my angel / Please don’t you disappear.” The contrast captures his grief as he contemplates the existence of an afterlife. “Incomplete Kisses” is another standout track, partially because of the happiness contained in the melody. It isn’t a fast track, in fact, quite the opposite. The beauty is in the simplicity of the fuzzy bassline, the piano in the second half and the repetition of the title throughout. “Incomplete Kisses” manages to be both uplifting and calming. The track is steady and dependable while feeling fresh even on repeat listens. Every track on Process tells a story, made compelling by the emotion infused into his soft, confident voice. His minimalistic beats combine his piano and electronic skills to create a cohesive sound.

The most unique and powerful aspect about Sampha’s music is his ability to simultaneously display vulnerability and strength. Many songs on the album feel remorseful and act as a window into the pain that Sampha has felt throughout his life. However, weakness is notably absent. Sampha’s vulnerability is a sign of his strength. The emotions on Process are not those of a broken man, but rather a man unafraid to show the world who he is. In Process, Sampha has crafted an album that shows why he has been asked for so many collaborations with big name artists. Released in January, Process will stand out as one of the best albums of 2017.

Ryan Slama is a freshman in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at rms427@cornell.edu.

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