If anxiety is an issue for you, you understand that quieting your mind is extremely difficult. I’ve adopted a few techniques to aid in in my journey, including yoga and meditation. A certain stillness and calm washes over me when in meditation. The slow, steady, deliberate movements and the patterned chants provide structure to my often cluttered mind. Music played softly in the background is another necessary addition while doing these rituals.
Without advanced listening, I decided to go with my gut and incorporate Process, Sampha’s debut album, as the soundtrack to my Friday morning liturgy. I was not disappointed. Unyielding instrumentals gave way to rich layered harmonies and effusive expressions of emotion.
Sampha’s father, Joe Sisay, passed away in ’98 from lung cancer. His mother, Binty Sisay, passed away in the fall of 2015 from cancer as well. The album is a reflection of his emotional state in the aftermath of his mother’s death. Sampha’s own admission of his songwriting is that it can and is often time nonsensical. That is to say that it is at times stream-of-consciousness writing. He’ll sit at his piano, and as he’s playing, the words will just come out. This quality, combined with the metronome-like quality of his lyrics, is trance-inducing. With these two qualities laying the foundation for the album, he injects raw, unfettered emotion into each track.
Sampha likens himself to fragile plastic melting in the brilliance of sunlight on the opening track. “Plastic 100°C.” It opens with a sample of Neil Armstrong talking to mission control after landing on the moon. His line “I’ll work my way over here into the sunlight without looking directly into the sun” hints at a subject of being surrounded my emotion but not fully immersed in it. He touches on his own mortality as he reflects, “sleeping with my worries, yeah, I didn’t really know what the lump was.” In 2012, Sampha noticed a lump in his throat. After going to doctors multiple times, they still weren’t able to find anything. He strips himself of hopes and focuses on his feelings as they are now.
“Blood on Me” is a song of avoidance and eventual acceptance and redemption. You can hear heavy breathing throughout the song. Sampha said that he purposely ran or did light exercise in the recording booth to create the breathless effect. He wanted to convey the message of running away from or avoiding something that you know will eventually catch up with you. “I swear they smell the blood on me. I hear them coming for me.”
His mother was integral in his development. Like most musicians, Sampha’s connection to instruments is very intimate and personal. He parallels his deeply profound love of music with the love he holds for his mother on “Kora Sings” and “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” A Kora is a West African string instrument which sounds like a fusion of a harp and a guitar. He makes mention of his mother being his “Angel.” On “(No One Knows Me),” Sampha melds the influence of his mother into that of the piano. He personifies the piano as a caregiver and influencer and vice versa. “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home. You would show me I had something some people call a soul.” He creates a degree of warmth and nostalgia with his voice hovering just above the soft keys.
“Take Me Inside” functions as an interlude. It’s a bridge between the previous four songs and the next four. The lyrics have a dreamy quality of half-consciousness. Whereas the first four were introspective and individually vulnerable, the next four take you on a journey of interconnected exposure.
In “Reverse Faults,” Sampha is brutally honest about his role in the dissolving of a relationship – his lack of vulnerability being the main component that contributed to its failure. Despite that, he blamed her. The next track, “Under,” flips that narrative on its head, as he speaks on how his lover manipulated him. He’s love-struck, and the more he tries to connect, the less it seems to work. The instrumental here is a standout as it’s different from the general electronic direction of the rest of the album. It’s distinctly more like modern trap R&B.
“Timmy’s Prayer” is the standout record. Co-written by Kanye West, it finds Sampha employing the uttermost limits of his falsetto. It’s a beautiful track that employs clever metaphors and similes. “If ever you’re listening, if heaven’s a prison then I am your prisoner. Yes, I am your prisoner.” He fully realizes that the love he’s lost is where he wants to be. He wants to be a prisoner of love. “Incomplete Kisses” is like an amalgamation of the previous three tracks. The “Incomplete Kisses” that have been sneaking their way into the relationship between him and his lover have now resulted in apathy from both parties. The earlier mentioned theme of being surrounded by emotion but not immersed in it shows heavy in this track.
The closing track, “What Shouldn’t I Be?” was perfectly placed because it’s an open ended question. There’s no definitive answer. It’s a constant journey of self-discovery and reinvention. He talks a lot about his family in this track, specifically the ever-present incorporeal presence of his parents and his brother. “I Should visit my brother, but I haven’t been there in months. I’ve lost connection, signal to how we were.” Sampha’s album is called Process. Having a neat ending track would defeat the purpose. He’s in the process of healing, discovery and growth.
Sampha relies heavily on repetition throughout Process. Repetition is the mother of all learning and it always drives a point home. He’s very experimental with his sounds, but he always works in patterns. In meditation, I focus on a continuous sound or group of sounds to center and organize my mind into something more recognizable. The reiteration of sounds, of vocal patterns, of words that Sampha uses makes this album an actual audible manifestation of meditation. The peace and stillness that I experienced after this album faded out was palpable. Sampha, thank you for helping me to declutter my mind a bit more.