Monday, February 13, 2017

album review: 'process' by sampha

I didn't know what to expect going into this.

I mean, I knew a little about Sampha, I recognized the name, but the name of this English singer-songwriter-producer was never one that I had ever felt inclined to seek out on the benefit of guest performances alone. For one, I was first introduced to him through SBTRKT, where his vocals were frequently featured - and maybe it was just a really bad concert experience a year or so back, but I've never been all that fond of SBTRKT and I wasn't really blown away by what I'd heard from this guy. That hasn't stopped him from collaborating or working with some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed names in hip-hop and R&B - Drake, Kanye, FKA Twigs, and most recently a vocal contribution to Solange's last album that I remain less in love with seemingly everyone else. 

So when I heard this record was getting mountains of critical acclaim from a wide variety of sources - from those I respect like a few fellow YouTube critics to those I don't, which is rapidly including most other publications - I figured there was something to this guy's debut that caught people's ears, especially if the acclaim was this diverse. So I dug into that debut Process - what did I find?

Man, I really wish I liked this a lot more than I do. And this is starting to get seriously frustrating, because once again I'm diving into territory that I know exactly why so many critics are praising this record to high heavens - the writing, the themes of recovery and grief and self care, Sampha's organic and expressive delivery against the delicate jittery production, I completely get why people love this. But I'm not going to force something that's not there, I couldn't really care for this as much as I wanted. It reminds me a lot of the feelings I got when I covered FKA Twigs and Solange - I like it, I completely see the appeal, I know it's going to get a ton of critical acclaim, but even more than those albums this record sits in the awkward place where I can intellectually appreciate what it's doing and its appeal a lot more than it resonates for me.

And a not-insignificant part of it - brace yourself - is Sampha himself as a singer. I already said it once so far in this review, I would have said it if I covered SBTRKT back in 2014, and I'll say it here, I just don't really care for his delivery. And it's hard to describe why: he's got a traditional R&B inflection and cadence when he sings, but there's an odd warbling huskiness where he mostly sits in his midrange that never seems to hit a level of deeper soul to resonate with me. Maybe it would work if he delivered a little more of a rasp or stayed more in his lower range or didn't sound like he was on the verge of tears for so many of these tracks - which yes, I know, it's part of the point, we'll come back to this - which might be the reason the angrier, darker tones of 'Blood On Me' or 'Under' or the stripped-back wistful piano ballad '(No One Know Me) Like The Piano' actually resonate - they're a little older, a little more weary, a little heavier and older or at the very least ratcheting up the tension, there his delivery matches the gravitas. But where he's dipping into a cleaner, overdubbed higher tone or his falsetto like on 'Take Me Inside', it just doesn't click.

Granted, that song has its own set of issues, most notably coming in that piano melody that could have carried a workable melody if it had been remotely tuned well, which takes us to the instrumentation and production. And look, I'm not going to deny its experimental - the warping prevalence of contorted shrill synths, plucky guitar and harp elements, choppy percussion, and a mix that has plenty of space for it all to spread, it's very easy to make the Arca or Hundred Waters comparisons. But at least Arca occasionally can pull together a decent thicker groove to balance out all of the melodic fragments, which is where I think Sampha's material can really suffer. The grooves we do get are thin and choppy, nearly always seem at the precipice of coming apart in your hands, and are severely underserved in the low end - and no, throwing in fuzzy blocks of hip-hop or trap-inspired bass isn't always a workable solution. It connects for 'Blood On Me' and to a lesser extent on 'Under', but that's more because it's a strong underlying melody and features more tense propulsion in the vocals or slightly sharper melodies. Compare to 'Plastic 100*C' or the fuzzy touches on 'Reverse Faults' or the oddly tinny and stiff Timmy Thomas sample on 'Timmy's Prayer' that I wanted to like a lot more than I do that switches up into these brittle rattles against the bass and compressed layers of thinner backing vocals that never seem to hit the melodic climax it builds to, and I'm just not as impressed - Sampha's vocals are the sort that could do a lot with a solid, thicker underlying groove to intensify the flow, and without it he can feel unsupported. Hell, that's what happens on the warbling off-key flutters of 'Incomplete Kisses' or the harp-like touches against a more spacious mix and restrained 80s-esque synths on 'What Shouldn't I Be' or the choppy rattling plucks on 'Kora Sings' - in the latter two cases, neither song is bad, but with a sharper balance and slightly thicker, 'Kora Sings' galloping groove could have a little more welcome propulsion to match the live drumline which vanishes for the final quarter of the track for an atmospheric vocal exercise that doesn't compliment anything and kills the momentum. 

What it lends this album is a perpetually feeling of nervous instability, which feels a bit awkward especially when you consider the larger underlying lyrical themes of this album and that 'process' - and yes, you could tack on 'grieving' or 'coping' to the title and the themes would align nearly exactly. Even before I discovered that much of this record was recorded during and after his mother died of cancer, there's a distinct sense of lingering loss and loneliness that runs deeply through this project. And what Sampha understands is that this indeed a process that can indeed feel like fits and false starts - so perhaps the lyrics do fit the uncomfortable instrumentation in a weird sort of way. A common metaphor that runs through the first half of the album is sunlight, as he exposes himself to greater clarity and beginning to accept the searing pain that he knows is coming. And while he knows there are nightmares coming - 'Blood On Me' is particularly haunting in that regard - he knows more than ever that these are demons he needs to purge from his own mind to go forward. And look, I can't imagine what sort of pain and loss Sampha has to be feeling, especially returning to his childhood home to reminisce on '(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano'... but when you follow the first four tracks that have that thematic focus with 'Take Me Inside', which seems less about letting go of a lost parent and more about setting a lover free, the themes start to feel more tenuous. And sure, you could make the argument that the toxic emotions that color the blame games of 'Reverse Faults', or the distant observations a capricious woman on 'Under' or the mingled exposure of being a prisoner of love on 'Timmy's Prayer' or the choice to embrace fuller love on 'Incomplete Kisses' are rooted at his mother's passing... but look, it still feels like a bit of a stretch here. He attempts to tie things back together with the closer 'What Shouldn't I Be', examining the differences between familial expectations and his own... but I can't help but feel the call to a long-long brother to reconnect was handled far better by Aesop Rock on 'Blood Sandwich' last year. I appreciate that he's trying to represent a more natural process - and I do like a lot of the language Sampha uses, drawing on liquid, textured sci-fi language that does have a lot of character, derived from a very visual style and writing technique according to him - but I'll repeat what I've said about plenty of arthouse flicks: great visuals will only take you so far.

So here's the thing: I don't dislike this project. Hell, I wouldn't say there was any outright bad songs here so much as there are frustrating ones that could be better. For a debut album, Sampha has a ton of promise and his style of writing and production is unique enough to drive some real attention... I just wish I liked more. For me, it's a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if anything I described is to your liking. As for me... well, again, there's promise, and I'd love to see it come to fruition.

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