Sampha isn’t the first behind-the-scenes talent to enter the spotlight—his recent employer Kanye West, you might recall, was an in-demand beat maker before launching a career as an emcee—but he somehow seems like the quintessential example of a studio hand who’s ready for prime time. He’s clearly a master of craft, and his skillsets as a writer and producer are flexible enough to accommodate the whims of Drake, Solange, and numerous others; the title of his inaugural LP, Process, even suggests a certain workmanlike joy in the creative journey, a pleasure in work for work’s sake. Yet his mastery of form is deep enough that he knows just where to tweak it, just how to subvert it to get his point across. The result is a record with broad appeal and precise vision; a record where listeners can find themselves but also where they’ll spot the auteur’s hand if they really care to look for it.
More than anything, Process feels like classic singer/songwriter-ism updated for the hip-hop era; it’s got a clean, uncluttered feel, even when samples and loops run wild, and the songs themselves are appealingly spare and economical. “Blood on Me” layers voices over pensive piano and percussive cling and clatter, and with just two verses and a chorus Sampha sketches paranoia and self-doubt—the feeling that you need to turn and run from an evil that may exist only in yourself. And the song is just that: it’s a feeling. There aren’t many concrete particulars given to explain what it all means, but you don’t need them—you can feel it on your skin.
Even more of a throwback is “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” which shows off the casual virtuosity and powerful restraint in Sampha’s production. At first it’s just a ballad for voice and piano, with the beats and vocal overdubs entering so quietly you hardly notice at first. It’s another song where the minimal words are just hooks where he can hang big, universal emotions—childhood remembrances, the feeling of being safe and warm in your mother’s home.
He deploys his bag of tricks carefully: “Take Me Inside” is, for most of its running time, another piano ballad, deep-rooted in classicism, but then at the end he turns the whole thing inside out with funhouse-mirror effects. “Kora Sings” flips between quiet delicacy and breakneck speed. “Incomplete Kisses” is a symphony of beeps and glitches. Every word and every sound across Process feel like they’re chosen with precision by a man whose craft is assured, who didn’t get into this business out of hunger for the spotlight, but whose talents are too big for him to avoid it.