February 9th at Terminal 5 (NYC)
By: Anita Wu
As the east coast became a blanket of up to 12 inches of snow, many people flocked indoors to shield themselves from the icy temperatures but I was not one of them. Instead of enjoying the snow day, I battled the elements and trekked into the city to see a talent worth nearly getting frostbite on my soaked feet. This man was Sampha.
A 28-year-old experimental singer, Sampha comes from Morden, South London. He is an elegant, humble man who for years shied away from the limelight, touching souls with his voice that had often been lent to other renowned performers. These include UK heavy hitters like SBTRKT and Jessie Ware, as well as acclaimed American and Canadian artists such as Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and Drake. His most recent guest appearances are from Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair and Kanye’s Saint Pablo singles. His tender, emotional soprano and incredible ability to create elusive electronic beats have gone unnoticed, until now, but make him an underrated star.
With two EPs to his name (2010’s Sundanza and 2013’s Dual), Sampha has been reluctant to release solo material, but this luckily changed on February 3rd. Announcing his debut album, the bashful soul who once found comfort in the background finally took centre stage with Process. An electro-soul record that captivates a spiritual journey that laments his own personal loss and grapples with the complex navigation of artistic purpose, Process is humbling and powerful in his delivery of self-doubt, guilt and fear of moving forward. The confessional lyrics are a testament to Sampha grieving the loss of his mother, who died of cancer in the fall of 2015, a disease that had also taken his father victim, a decade earlier. The record demonstrates an artist tackling his own demons of family commitment and personal responsibility and is an impressive indication of what the artist is capable of.
Playing his first ever sold-out show in New York, Sampha’s choice of venue was Terminal 5, a hip 3000 cap venue in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood of Manhattan. Though Sampha had been relatively under the radar despite working with a steady stream of artists, the turnout that evening proved that his fan base has been growing quickly. They were clearly as excited as ever to see him, an extensive line weaved around the block, and the anticipation began to build. Inside, the atmosphere was electric. Terminal 5 was heaving with people with a sea of fans taking up the entire mezzanine and the floor pit an endless swarm of swaying bodies.
Opening the show with the first track of the album, “Plastic 100°C”, Sampha set the tone for the rest of the evening with striking visuals balancing the fragile tracks. “Plastic” had the stage washed in a bright pink glow with Sampha posed in the middle, exhibiting his evident talent and twinkling away at the keyboard. His performance featured playing with beats and singing away at the mic with a voice that was as true to the record, if not, better. Following up with “Timmy’s Prayer”, the crowd began to move as Sampha crooned about how his organs were beating through, “my ribcage opened, my heart ballooned / I…I’ve lost another one”. Presenting his vulnerability in such a bleak, personal manner, the connection between the sea of strangers to the man on stage was quickly formed as fans from all over shouted back lyrics and swayed to the beat.
Briefly stopping to address the crowd, Sampha was as humble as I expected him to be. Floored by the love and energy of the crowd, he was coy to talk about his album and the work he was happy to finally release and share with us that night. Even when he spoke, he commanded the room with his soft frequency that was soothing and encompassing but his music spoke volumes for him.
“Reverse Faults” continued the sonic soundscape of disorienting beats and a delicate texture that was unlike anything else, accented by wavering, colourful lights. “Under” turned up the tempo with a sleek, trap underscore punctuating the air with its fierce, pulsing beats. The stage, now a startling wash of blue with cascading colours appearing to drip down the walls, continued the audience’s entranced fixation of Sampha’s hypnotic journey. But as quickly as he could draw us in and get the audience dancing, Sampha also had the ability to pull us back and remind us of his introverted, soulful persona too. “Happens” and “Too Much”, two older singles from 2013 made an appearance with Sampha bent over the piano, couching us in a vulnerability that felt sad but simultaneously comforting. His delicate falsetto gave off an intimacy, whether in an upbeat or somber track and this built up during his two hour set. “Take Me Inside”, “Incomplete Kisses” and “Kora Sings” were also in the line up and each got considerable reactions from the crowd, which had concert goers shouting their praises during and between songs.
One song that united the crowd of committed, loyal supporters to newer fans was “Blood On Me”. A frantic song, which had Sampha singing through heavy breaths, dramatically covered in a red hue. This performance had the audience enraptured in a haunting nightmare of Sampha chasing his own insecurities, set to a catchy beat and him banging away at his keyboard and was incredible to see live. He at times, grabbed his mic and sang to various sections of the crowd, improvising over instrumentals of the track which had fans as passionate as his performance. Transitioning to his beautiful stand out ballad, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, Sampha was somehow able to bring a highly energetic crowd shift to a meditative, quiet state of mind. Universally loved, this song was given true justice with Sampha’s ode to the ivory keys, showcasing the true intimacy and beating heart of Process.
Taking a bow from the stage for the first of two times, Sampha was genuine in his delivery, endlessly stating his gratitude to the dedicated fans that had braved the snow to showcase their support for his artistry. He was humble, unmistakably talented, and his hard work was rewarded by the reciprocated love that permeated the walls of Terminal 5, the walls aglow in vibrant colours but the atmosphere full of adoration of fans that were happy to be present with him at that moment.
Ending his fantastic show with “Without”, my personal favourite, this warm, soulful track, had fans grooving out, and smiles all-round. Proudly expressing his Sierra Leone roots, this performance like many before, had him ad-libbing sections of the song bringing out his band members to perform a vibrant, lively percussion set with drums with a definitive African flair. Leaving us on an intoxicating high, he left briefly fooling the newer fans unaware of his repertoire of work, with members of the audience addressing – “he can’t leave, he’s got like ten more in him.” And that was indeed correct. Though he was unable to commit to that many, he closed the second and last encore with “Indecision”, another track from his famed 2013 “Dual” EP. Reminding us that “it will all work out” over the chorus of the intricate digital production, Sampha oozed his soul and being into the stillness and simplicity of this performance and brought the audience to a standstill.
Process may have been his recovery but he was our salvage, providing fans the warmth and comfort that no blanket or central heating could give us during this bitter winter evening. His breadth of artistic expressions was given justice that evening and there’s no doubt that his role as a leading independent artist will not be stopping anytime soon.