It’s easy to forget that music can be as therapeutic for the artist to make as it is for the listener to experience. Sampha Sisay proves this true on his debut LP, Process. It’s a testament to his gorgeous, versatile vocals; an impressive display of the beauty that can rise from pain. Sisay’s mother passed away from cancer in 2015, and that tragedy, in a way, makes this album. Themes of grief and heavy emotions run everywhere.
But Process is only heart-wrenchingly powerful, never overdramatic.
The album opens with “Plastic 100°C,” a passionate introduction to a similarly raw album. Like “Demons” from Dual, Sampha’s second EP, “Plastic 100°C” starts with a clip of a voice recording before cycling into the actual song. Plucking, harp-like notes lend the piece a hypnotic, ethereal feeling that sparks the detailed lyrical imagery, while escalating instrumentals intensify and advance the song. “It's so hot I've been melting out here / I'm made out of plastic out here / You touched down in the base of my fears,” he sings, with feverish anxiety in his voice. Even more striking is the unhurried, vulnerable bridge of the piece, which contrasts sharply with the organized chaos of the first few minutes.
“Blood On Me,” the second track and first single on Process, came about because of a terrifying dream, and it’s audible in Sampha’s voice. The song begins breathlessly, then grows in both intensity and feeling. The faster pace of the piece, quick, drumming instrumentals and hypnotizing, almost cinematic descriptions of the beings chasing him combine in trepidation, yet create a mesmerizing dream that gradually swallows the listener.
Process shares some of the same stylistic qualities prevalent in 2013’s Dual, like a heavy reliance on electronic instrumentals and a prancing piano, but the difference between the two is in their tone. Dual is unfailingly melodious and bright, even at its moodiest, possessing barely any of the dark, somber earnestness that dominates Process.
“Take Me Inside” may be the shortest track in the album, but it’s one of the most beautiful. It’s slower paced than most of Process, a quality that emphasizes the light, delicate dance of Sampha’s higher octaves. His voice’s smooth transitions bring to mind the composed strength of a ballerina, filled with a calm grace that belies the effort required to perfect such skill. The latter half of the song sounds as if Sampha were accompanied by a chorus of starlit angels. The beauty of the song never detracts from its weight though: “And I seek / I'm seeking something I can't see / I may be reading in too deep / And maybe this is all a dream,” Sampha croons, leaving the listener with an immersive, echoing melancholy that sticks.
Sampha’s range is almost limitless. “Under” is an intentionally tumultuous track, with an echoing beginning reminiscent of Dual’s “Beneath The Tree,” while “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” strips away most of the electronic instrumentals that are present in practically every other track, leaving Sampha’s voice to amble along at it’s own heartfelt pace accompanied by a single piano.
With a steady hand, Sampha takes listeners through a mesmerizing journey that gets down to the grit of what makes us human. Instead of shying away from pain that’s often hard to discuss, much less sing about, he embraces it. Process is a magnetizing reminder that music is inseparable from emotion and an affirmation that grief, at its rawest, is universally understood.