No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.
Sampha knows death. The British singer and producer lost his father to cancer at a young age and lost his mother to cancer just two years ago. And earlier this decade, between those two traumatic events, he began to feel a lump in his throat. Examinations of that lump have been inconclusive, but Sampha still shoulders its ominous weight. “Sleeping with my worries, yeah I really didn’t know what the lump was,” he reflects on “Plastic 100° C.” Process, his debut album, explores the voids that are left in the wake of death and loss, detailing the ways we fill and feel those emptied spaces.
The most palpable absence in Sampha’s life is his mother’s. Sampha served as her caretaker after her cancer diagnosis and was by her side during the cancer’s emergence, remission, and return. “Kora Sings” is a diaristic account of this intimate loss, dwelling not on the lead-up to her death, but on his refusal to accept its likelihood. “You don’t know how strong you are,” Sampha assures her, clinging to hope. The song is a record of emotional impressions rather than of concrete events. He doesn’t remember his mom dying as much he remembers experiencing her sudden absence. “You just gotta be there” he sings in a ghostly wisp, his pained voice dissolving into a blur of swirling synths, unspecific yet precise.
“(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” uses his childhood piano, a gift from his father when he was 3 years old, to chillingly texturize his mother’s absence. “No one knows me like the piano/In my mother’s home,” he croons in the chorus. It’s a seance that’s built to fail: Sampha plays that special piano to both invoke her presence and mourn her absence. The song is deeply ambivalent, weighted by the permanence of death, but buoyed by the equal permanence of happy memories. Sampha slyly skips a beat before singing, “In my mother’s home,” making the line hit like a plot twist. I think it’s a happy ending.