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.
Endings are deceptive though. “Blood On Me” is a humid fever dream in which Sampha imagines himself being pursued by hooded figures. He escapes them twice but the blood of his unstated misdeeds always remains, coloring the sky, staining his conscience, or literally flowing out of him following a car wreck. Just as dreamlike, “Incomplete Kisses” transports Sampha to his father’s gravestone, where, peering from the sky, he sees himself as a child . “And I hear those cries/Don’t you leave me here,” he sings, flitting between first, second, and third person, an ouroboros of intimacy, distance, nostalgia, and alienation. For Sampha, grief is a centrifuge that never loses torque, the process perpetual.
All this despair could be suffocating, but Sampha is a nimble producer, inserting new elements into songs even as they near resolution. On “Take Me Inside” minor keys dourly tiptoe along for the bulk of the song, and then, toward the end, they’re spirited away and replaced by shimmering synths. On “Timmy’s Prayer” a surge of bubbly effects gushes forth right as the song reaches its emotional peak. These jarring shifts usher sunlight into the funeral home, lightening the mood and subtly redefining what it means to grieve. Sampha presents despair as a textured experience, as galvanizing as it is paralyzing.
Album highlight “Under,” a bouncy track with elements of house and trance, conflates grief and love. “Sophisticated bitter queen / You’re the ghost in my machine/As I sit at my piano,” Sampha sings, complimenting a lover while channeling his mother. It’s a spooky image, desire collapsing into heartache, the right love at the wrong time. But it also feels like the inevitable consequence of loving — in any form — after loss. “Waves come crashing over me/ I’m somewhere in open sea,” Sampha sings, unsure of what happens next.
These images of water and uncertainty bring to mind a brief scene from the 1995 film Ghost In The Shell, which Sampha references on “Under” (it was also played on a projector in the studio during the recording of Process). In the scene, the movie’s main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, floats to the surface of the ocean. Ascending slowly, Major drifts toward the surf, goggles soaking in the orange sky just beyond the water. Her body looks relaxed, but right before she surfaces, time slows and we see her reflection moving at the same breathless pace. Leaning forward, the mirror image looks poised rather than resigned and for a split-second, Major seems like she might become her. Eventually, they meet, Major emerging motionless from the water, alone, her eyes wide open. “I feel fear, cold, alone. Sometimes I feel hope,” she says of her dives.
I don’t think that “Under” is a direct homage to that scene, but it shares the same sense of awe, fascinated by who we might become when our dreams become indistinct from our pain. Process uses pain as proof that our ghosts can never leave us and the result is both haunting and liberating. Sampha knows life.