After half a decade as a hired siren for British dance and American R&B stars, Sampha Sisay drops his debut album Process. Far from the anonymous chart-testers we usually get from freelance singers (cf: Sam Smith and Jess Glynne), it’s a deeply personal document of grief and paranoia that casts its creator not as a star but as a promising singer-songwriter. Sampha is skilled enough that we can listen on his past collaborations and wonder if he wasn’t given short short-shrift. Who’d have thought?

His secret weapon is the piano. “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home,” he sings over what may be that very piano–one of the keys is tinny and out of tune. There’s a poignant true story here: the singer returned to his childhood home in 2014 to care for his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2015, and Sampha wrote many of these songs on that piano as catharsis.

But with Young Turks’ in-house producer Rodaidh McDonald never far away with electronics, the piano isn’t simply a bid for acoustic authenticity, and a mother’s death isn’t the only thing on Sampha’s mind.

On “Plastic 100°C,” he’s worried about a mysterious and still undiagnosed .lump he found on his neck while on tour. On “Blood on Me” he’s paranoid about mysterious figures out to get him. Many lyrics here indicate a breakup, and perhaps aware of the potentially one-sided nature of breakup albums, Sampha’s keen on insisting he was at least as much at fault. “It’s always you and never me,” he sings on “Reverse Fault. Yet the album caps with the line, “It’s not all about me,” which would be a nice sentiment if the album were not in fact all about him.

This is an outpouring of emotion as messy and impulsive as a psychiatric patient rambling to their therapist. It’s no more about his mother than it is about his breakup. It’s just him letting loose, and it’s as confusing as it is devastating. The most poignant line here is, “They said that it’s her time/ No tears in sight/ I kept the feelings close,” from “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano.” If one didn’t know his mother had passed, one might conflate the breakup and death narratives and think he was talking about the same woman. Either way, the line hits hard because the contrast between the brusqueness of doctors and the grief of their wards is a reliable tear-jerking trope.

Process sits in an odd limbo between the cathartic, 808s & Heartbreak-style album the artist-needed to make versus the long-anticipated, career-launching album the label needed to put out. McDonald’s production is intrusive at times, especially on the more piano-driven tracks, where his pads and bleeps seem more like a reminder this guy once sang with SBTRKT than as an accoutrement to the music. Sampha’s star is still rising, especially with recent collaborations with Drake, Frank Ocean and Solange under his belt; millions who wouldn’t recognize his face have heard his voice. The name “Sampha” might not sell a hit, but the expectations are still weighty enough that a sparse album about grief might underwhelm no matter how good it is.

But, flawed though it is, Process is an astonishing debut that reveals things about the artist no one would have expected. Who knew he was such a good piano player? Who knew that he, little more than a mercenary diva for most of his career, had so much on his mind?

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