Following last year and the shock of Skepta’s beating Bowie, grabbing grime’s second Mercury and shaking the British music scene, this years award appeared anyone’s for the taking. Kate Tempest’s genre bending Let Them Eat Chaos was packed with sharp bars and social commentary. Indie behemoths and previous winners alt-J and The xx seemed poised to pounce. But the 2017 Mercury Award will surely be remembered as the moment that humble South London singer songwriter Sampha Sisay emerged from beneath the shadow of some of the world’s biggest artists.
While the futuristic, neo-soul infused Process might be his debut album Sampha’s victory is no shock. Sisay’s frequent collaboration with hip-hop’s heaviest hitters Drake and Kanye as well as Frank Ocean and Solange, two of RnB’s most critically acclaimed artists, has marked him as one to watch for a good few years.
The albums centrepiece ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ is a melancholic masterpiece, part confessional poem, and part piano ballad. Wrapped up in the minimalism of Sampha’s skeletal piano instrumental, the layers of Sampha’s vocal delivery are firmly foregrounded. Tense, nuanced and painfully raw Sampha sways between the crushing loss and beauty of bittersweet memories of a family “that took hold of me and never, never, never let me go”. You will struggle to find two verses and a chorus packed so tightly with catharsis and vulnerability.
Able to glide effortlessly between sharp, metaphors and the grinding reality of the world Sampha’s phenomenal lyricism entrenches this fixed tone of anxiety. Somehow Sampha seamlessly flits from abstract thought provoking images of “silhouettes inside a dream” to the harsh fragility of daily life, revealing that he “didn’t really know what the lump was”. Intimacy lies at the heart of the records powerfulness. Sampha possesses a masterful ability to conjure a tone of raw powerlessness and uncertainty.
The records sonic diversity is epitomised by the ‘Hot Plastic 100°C’. Exquisitely ethereal, Sampha manages to bind perfectly together sounds that should be incongruous and messy. Blending breathless, panic ridden vocals with the harmonious harp melodies of the tracks instrumental, Sampha succeeds in crafting a song the fully captures the paralysing power of anxiety.
Sampha possesses a masterful ability to conjure a tone of raw powerlessness and uncertainty
The Mercury Prize judges have rewarded a truly exceptional individual project. With the record written solely by Sampha himself excluding a singular contribution from hip-hop titan Kanye West’s in writing ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ it’s no wonder the record manages to so perfectly grasp onto a recognisable tone. Process is consistently introspective and emotive, a far cry from the insipid lyrics and generic, mind numbing melodies of fellow nominee Ed Sheeran’s Divide. There’s simply no comparison between the pulsating percussion on Sampha’s ‘Blood on Me’ and the vapid instrumentation that plagues tracks like Sheeran’s banal ‘Shape of You’.
Sampha’s Process pushes the boundaries of what can be expected from a neo-soul or RnB record. An album overflowing with diverse sounds from skeletal piano instrumentals to raucous synths, Proccess manages to remain tight and cohesive without the expense of fresh and varied sounds. This unwavering consistency places Process ahead of the chasing pack of Mercury nominees. While the quality of the 140bpm bangers on Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer are unquestionable, fellow South Londoner Michael Omari just does not possess the talent or versatility to craft tracks that warm the heart as well as they light up the dance floor at a rave. Stormzy’s flat, strained vocal performance on ‘Blinded By Your Grace Pt.2’ is totally incomparable to the consistent warmth of Sampha’s nuanced, fragile vocals.
It is this rich texture of Sampha’s voice alongside the sharpness of his lyrical prowess that define him as a worthy recipient of the Mercury Award. Process is a magical album that flirts with all manner of human emotions.