Sampha’s ‘Process’ Sets Familial Memory and Loss to Exquisite Sound


Process, the debut album by Drake/Solange/Frank Ocean/FKA twigs collaborator Sampha, opens with a sound bite taken from outer space. It’s a clip of Neil Armstrong narrating his moonwalk: “I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun.” Armstrong’s voice introduces an album that, with its thematic continuum of rumination on loss, can express crushing claustrophobia in luminescent vastness and coziness in pitch blackness.

Above all, Process is largely an album about grief. The grief that Process addresses comes from the loss of its creator’s mother; she died of cancer in 2015, with Sampha having moved home to take care of her in her last months. In an interview with The Fader mid-last year, Sampha said of the loss, “There’s not ‘the grieving process.’ It’s like a dream you never… It’s never gonna feel real.”

If there’s anything overarching that could describe the mercurial album (which ranges from piano-based soul ballads to experimental pop that sounds like it was made in the Large Hadron Collider) those words might be the best way to do it. It’s telling, then, that he named the album Process, because it seems the artist chose a name antithetical to his notion of grief, as the very idea of structuring it into an album might be. The album as a finite entity — like a process — here, as best as it possibly can, illustrates something phantasmal and shapeshifting that cannot fit into a finite entity.

As such, while it’s largely an album about grief, Process is not mired in a single emotion, sound, or genre, nor does it mire the listener in mourning. It approaches its subject matter in a strange multitude of ways; its instrumentals, especially, do not seem designed to evoke or reflect sadness, but rather create a close, but emotionally elliptical, even sometimes invigorating experience of it.

The first track “Plastic 100ºC,” introduces us to the levels of emotional exposure to which Sampha will subject himself. It’s a placid piece of work for a song about anxiety and nakedness to the scorching glare of an alien reality. Beginning with the Armstrong clip, it’s a slow plunge into space, woven with kora notes that gleam through the buzz of the dark matter — the deep bass, Sampha’s faint moans — that fills the song. He sings of the magnifying glass held up to his face that’s intensifying the heat of light shining on him — “And I’m melting from the light/ One drip at a time.” The light could double symbolically as an exposure to the listener: what Sampha ultimately provides can be uncomfortable in its intimacy.

The presence of the kora, a 21-string West African harp, on this, and a couple of other tracks, is important; it alludes to the album’s biographic and thereby somewhat geographic themes. Process will be accompanied by a film of the same name, which is due for release in March. In a tweet about the film, Sampha noted it’d see him traveling from the London suburb of Morden to Sierra Leone, from where his parents emigrated during the ’80). Beyond the vintage drum machines and effluvial electronics, the two central analog instruments on Process are the piano and the kora. Both are named in song titles — the third track, “Kora Sings,” and fourth, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” — in a song pairing that imbues each instrument with spiritual properties, tying these instruments to the dead, but using their memory to enliven them.

The back-to-back tracks also form a cultural map of both the lost and the indelible. The piano is the bridge to a vivid memory of Sampha’s childhood, while the kora seems to serve as a bridge to a more slippery notion of family and history. The songs speak to each other across time with their respective instruments and rhythmic oppositions: “Kora Sings” features drummer Pauli PSM creating a rockslide of consciousness, carrying Sampha unstoppably towards tragedy. The singer tries to envision an afterlife as a reality, and as the kora dances around him in dizzying polyrhythms.

The song plunges forward towards “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, which finds Sampha taking to the piano with a comparative sense of languor. The leap — from a vital struggle in “Kora” to glowingly sad reminiscence in “Piano” — is a disorienting skip between two timestamped levels of grief. The track — whose title in the lyrics actually continues as “…like the piano in my mother’s home” — is the sound of someone trying, and for a moment, succeeding, to refill a house whose meaning has been hollowed. Listening to songs like this need not feel masochistic: they can lead to a swell of appreciation for the people whose existence is itself a home to you, and to the appreciation of people’s ability to feel such a strange and singular thing.

The dynamism of the album wouldn’t be so attainable if it weren’t for the superlative emotional articulation of Sampha’s voice. Sometimes, the lyrics can be opaque, and the imagery occasionally verges on triteness; on songs like “Blood On Me,” the lyrics’ abstraction becomes ineffectively discordant with the immediacy of the instrumentation. But Sampha’s voice guides the whole experience with a rare form of control: comfort. While his voice may boom and then launch into impressive melisma, his vocal prowess is never alienating: it’s, rather, inviting, partially because the artist doesn’t eschew moments of imperfection. “Timmy’s Prayer” is punctuated by small, awkward “woo”s from the singer that endear you and draw you in — and then, moments later, he bellows with startling confidence. In other places, his voice maintains its friendly robustness, but scrapes with tiny, emotive jags. At its most emotional, it’s like the best ice cream you’ve ever tried, dipped in sand.

The album closes with “What Shouldn’t I Be?” Process’ most restrained, and most arresting song. On the harp-led track, Sampha sings in a near-whispered falsetto, “I wake up in my own skin again/ Thinking all about me.” Here, he walks, wearing “family ties” “round [his] neck” and a “ghost by [his] side.” The song is, aptly, something of a structural open plain. It finishes the album by opening out onto the unknown and unanswered; Sampha is still traversing the expanses of that violently bright, alien emotional terrain, but it feels that he has perhaps comforted himself with the depths of his own voice, and its embodiment of family, as an instrument.