Ben Walker

The Giver

On ‘Process,’ Sampha’s first full-length album, the artist communes with his past and himself

Some surroundings are dazzling while inhospitable. Think of space. The climate there exceeds the limits of human function — a quality that doesn't repel but attracts, provoking people to spend precious resources as they seek to infiltrate that zone and what it could represent. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's conquering of a hostile environment in 1969 stands as a sign of indomitability to some. Sampha, the 28-year-old British artist, hears their dispatches from space as messages of extreme defenselessness. "Plastic 100ºC," which opens his solo debut, Process, imagines Sampha in an emotional territory just as daunting as zero oxygen. "It's so hot I've been melting out here / I'm made out of plastic out here," he sings, with awe. He sings of plasticity, the ease with which a body and a will can break.

Sometimes, Process, released via Young Turks, finds the artist beautifully sunk into physical stupor. Weather keeps happening around him, showing up in spliced recordings of after-school laughter and falling rain. "If heaven's a prison / Then I am your prisoner," he intones on the single "Timmy's Prayer," an embrace of limbo that uses the elongated, pipe-like tones associated with state funeral marches. Since childhood, Sampha has been involved in activities of mourning; his father died when he was young, and his mother, whom he helped care for, died when he was in his twenties, while he was making Process. "Timmy's Prayer" was co-written by Kanye West, who has exposed his own bereavement to the public. Sampha, by contrast, is oblique. His knowledge of grief is intimate and precise. He's almost scientifically interested in how mourning can both numb and activate, sharpening the senses. His ability to observe is nearly unbearable. "My vital organs are beating through / My ribcage opened, my heart ballooned," he continues. It reminds me of the way Virginia Woolf wrote of "the act of sickness" in her essay "On Being Ill": "All day, all night, the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colors or discolors, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February."

The bodies in Sampha's world are susceptible. Process induces a number of moods besides languor, just as mourning, as a kind of reflection, can be strangely invigorating. Frenzy lives on Process, as do anxiety, paranoia, unbridled exhilaration, and honest fear. Choruses are summits; the climbs toward them, though arduous, can be ecstatic. "Kora Sings," which sounds built on iterations of West Indian percussion, reinterprets the possibilities of dance tracks. In the video for the single "Blood on Me," Sampha lies down on a bed of vegetalia, spread out in collapse. On the track itself, he pants and gasps for air. The heavy breathing fits for a vocalist who experiments with bending, quieting, and darkening the already bluish quality of his startling voice. "I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me." The song is about a chase, but there's ambiguity about which person holds the guilt.

His piano holds some sovereignty over Process, though it makes way for flitty, supernatural synths. ("Reverse Faults," which comes right after the perfect increase of the album's halfway point, "Take Me Inside," is a maximalist synth-symphony). "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano," perhaps a metaphorical ballad about his domestic tragedies, is also plain, gorgeous, and dolorous. If Sampha is not using the piano, he is likely singing about it, as on "Under." The economy with which he uses his favorite instrument reflects his careful use of metaphor and imagery. His hand has always been disciplined.

Sampha has been producing music since he was 13. He released two EPs before this album — becoming known for accessible balladry, on tracks like "Too Much," and electronic soul, on "Without" — and he has gained a hallowed post as a guest artist in the ecosystem of R&B-adjacent artists. His features display considerable empathy and an alluring generosity. They don't register like regular drop-in features, not audibly or visually. They're more like visitations, rationed exchanges of energy. His ability to customize his gifts around the shape of a particular act adds a swirl of nuance every time he appears on a song. He performed somewhat anonymously with the British artist SBTRKT for a time; his vocals haunt the middle of Beyoncé's "Mine," uncredited. In 2016, he made higher-profile appearances with Frank Ocean ("Endless") and Solange ("Don't Touch My Hair"), similarly sequestered artists. Sampha has said he is drawn to "being of service," to working as an instrument, as opposed to being a personality or a brand.

All this made the coming of Process an event, whether he liked it or not. (He probably didn't.) Sampha telegraphs an aversion to the pomp that typically distinguishes an album debut from the impressionistic projects he's dropped before. He favors noncommittal melodies that sound as if they've been made in bedrooms or sickrooms. Process retains that tendency, curing it with studio production. Sampha's voice, that emissary of previously untouched intimacies, is the most beguiling instrument. What's so bewitching is his genuine quietude, because it only thinly veils the intellectual and emotional bustling underneath. Process exhibits the prodigious depth Sampha can reach when he is in service of himself. It places wonder close to horror, breathing next to claustrophobia, and adrenaline right beside stupefaction. In so many ways, Sampha will stun you.