Music review: Listen to Sampha, the artist megastars Beyonce and Kanye West go to for heartfelt emotionalism

Process is an apt title for the long-awaited album debut of Sampha Sisay, the 28-year-old South Londoner and go-to guy for heartfelt emotionalism for megastars such as Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Beyonce and Solange.

It is a release wrought from grief, created in the wake of a series of family misfortunes: his mother's death from cancer in 2015, his father's passing from the same illness a decade earlier and his brother's disabling stroke. Sampha put aside his burgeoning career to be his mum's caregiver until she died.

What strikes you is how accurate and immersive that process is.

Unlike the almost unbearable loss of a teenage son that Nick Cave channelled in his 2016 album, Skeleton Tree, Sampha's losses are more elusive and subterranean.




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They hang over his record like ghosts that sometimes come to him as vivid as yesterday and often glimpsed from afar. It is the purgatorial experience of a survivor who has no choice but to cope - one may appear sane and composed on the surface, but completely broken inside.

This helplessness is compounded by his own health crisis. The first song on the record, Plastic 100°C, takes on the fear he has when doctors found a lump in his throat. Nobody could determine what it was and the musician confronts his mortality.

"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 in the strangely calm but plaintive croon of his, shored by a mix of crystalline synths and vocal loops.

Music thus becomes haven for the self-effacing and unlikely star. His record is singular, unyielding and solitary. That loneliness infuses one devastating dirge, (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. Seeking comfort in the sparse ivories, he pines for the comfort of home and the protection it affords: "They said that it's her time, no tears in sight, I kept the feelings close."

On Kora Sings, he weaves a fable on the bond between a mother and a child, as the unusual braiding of African harp and polyrhythms conspire to create a dreamlike yet jittery quality. "You've been with me since the cradle/You've been with me, you're my angel/Please don't you disappear," he pines in the voice of the mother, or the son.

He rides the razor line between bliss and despair with adroitness. The warped, back-masking effect on Reverse Faults is disconcerting and the starlit, staccato romance on Incomplete Kisses never completely disarms.

By the time one comes to What Shouldn't I Be?, Sampha has grasped the eternal existential dilemma. Torn between family expectation and his hopes, he has come to an understanding, if not resolution. Over intimate keys, he coos, almost out of breath: "Family ties/Put them 'round my neck/I'm walkin' 'round high/A ghost by my side."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Grieving over family loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe