Emotion running deep within music is nothing new; some of the best-selling songs of all time are ones inspired by love, heartbreak, loss. And yet, South London singer-songwriter Sampha seems to be able to channel these emotions like no other.
It is hard to believe that 2017 is the year he finally released his debut album, Process, having started out as a frequent collaborator with the likes of SBTRKT, Jessie Ware and Lil Silva back in 2011. Fast-forward to present day and Sampha is making headlines of his own, slaying each and every listener with melancholy vocals and heart-breaking lyrics.
He has been a coveted feature artist and co-writer for some of the biggest names around, and in the last few years has worked with Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Solange. Who could imagine Too Much, one of the most personal songs of Drake’s career, without the sampling of Sampha’s track of the same name and his haunting vocals acting as a backdrop for Drake’s reflections? Or perhaps imagine Don’t Touch My Hair from Solange’s critically acclaimed album A Seat at the Table without his refrain of “what you say to me” echoing throughout. It is impossible. Each track featuring his rich vocal ability feels lifted, wielded by frank, emotional honesty and ultimately improving them for the better. Sampha is vulnerability cool again.
The idea that emotional vulnerability is a feminine quality is still prevalent in our modern society, stigma surrounding everything from masculinity and sexuality to mental health issues. However, Sampha embraces this vulnerability throughout his entire body of work, proving that this stereotype is completely and utterly wrong. He acts as the poster boy for this, embracing his emotions openly in a world dominated by far too many Piers Morgan-types.
With his father dying from lung cancer in 1996 and his mother losing her own battle with the disease just two years ago during the recording of his debut album, it comes as no surprise that his music is lit by a roaring, emotionally-fuelled fire. As he began making waves in the music scene, he had to juggle his time between working on his music and caring for his family. This quite obviously affected his album, with it being a 40-minute-long emotive sucker punch, balancing piano balladry and the Malian folk music of his childhood with electronica and some very clever samples (ranging from Neil Armstrong to The Chi-Lites). By the end of the record, you feel truly affected, as though you’ve been on the entire journey with him. His artistry and song-writing depth truly aid the listener in escaping into his world: you imagine his struggle between two worlds, run away with him from his fears and worries and marvel on the ideas of love and the loss of it.
His mother’s death has had the strongest effect on the material on Process. Kora Sings is one of the most explicit references to it, fusing together a heavy kora beat and his haunting vocals. It works as a conversation with his mother, talking about her battle with cancer – “You don’t know how well you are / Or just how strong you are’ – and ultimately begging for his ‘angel… not to disappear”. A stand out, and perhaps the most talked about track from the album is (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano. He began writing the song after his mother’s second diagnosis of cancer following a brief remission period, but did not finish it until months after her passing. It is a fitting tribute to her, with his arresting vocal delivery and the beautifully simple piano melodies making for one of the most moving singles released in a long while. Passionately he sings “They said it’s her time, no tears in sight / I kept the feelings close,” and it is clear that these feelings are now the ones he has poured into his music, his debut acting as a diary that the individual listener feels only they are privy to.
Sampha’s music, while having these deep emotions at its core, is not indulgent or depressing in the slightest. Rather, his work is cathartic and sobering. And besides, who doesn’t need a good cry every now and then?
Get Volume #16 here.
Join our club.
Words by Kirstie Sutherland