Political Twittery aside, Sampha Sisay is the big news of 2017 so far. Quiet is the new loud. Modesty is the new egotism. For someone who's been around since 2010, was 4th on the BBC 'Sound of 2014' list and has collaborated with Drake, Kanye West, both Knowles sisters and Frank Ocean, he has remained British music's best-kept secret. With the release of "Process", his first album, his unassuming, surreptitiously-skulking-with-superstars days are surely over.
The album's title alludes to the difficult process of life and how we process tough experiences. Fragility of human life - finding a throat lump during the summer of 2011 - gives rise to the shuddering opener "Plastic 100°C", where the crippling heat and fear makes him melt 'one drip at a time'. The minimal, electro-soul "Timmy's Prayer" gives us lost love with lost pride ('I'm bleeding and you don't care,/ The sun shines and you're not there'). The thudding bass beat in "Reverse Faults" is Sampha repetitively punching himself in the face for alienating a lover, queasy, lurching synths adding further volatility.
Sampha's vocal is frequently a husky sotto voce, something you'd employ to butter up a librarian or persuade a parent you really shouldn't go to school. In his first big showcase, the 2011 Jessie Ware duet "Valentine", his naturally-understated voice is lower in the mix than hers, yet still the one to which your ear is drawn most, a trend continued in appearances alongside more vintage grands fromages. On this album, "Unfinished Sympathy"-influenced "Blood on Me" takes the volume higher, as he sings breathlessly of being hunted by aggressors. When we hear him roar 'I'm gasping for air', on Depeche Modey- synth-goth, "Under", it's exhilaratingly akin to that moment in Police Academy when timorous recruit Hooks finally erupts into 'Don't move, dirtbag'.
Tenderness is his default setting, be that sweetness or soreness. No song is more affectionate yet raw than "(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano", a tribute to his parents, both of whom succumbed to cancer (his mother died during the recording of the album). It is both eulogy and elegy, praising them for their gifts (especially music) and mourning them in equal measures. 'You would show me I had something some people call a soul', makes the piano a fundamental source of inspiration through loss and change. "Kora Sings" embraces his family's West African heritage, acknowledging the Malian music his parents played. Spiky R&B "Incomplete Kisses" cautions against emotional distance, imploring 'Don't let your heart hide your story'.
On album closer "What Shoudn't I Be?", Sampha reacts to family criticism with 'It's not all about me'. I wouldn't be surprised if the Mercury Prize judges took a different view on that particular statement.
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'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)' arrives in April.
The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.