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Mercury winner Sampha is an invisible pop star who prefers to let music do the talking

 Sampha wins the Hyundai Mercury Prize 2017
 Sampha wins the Hyundai Mercury Prize 2017 Credit: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images Europe

Soul sonic adventurer Sampha triumphed at the 2017 Hyundai Mercury Prize with an album of very intimate, almost private grief, albeit sifted through sci-fi soundscapes as modern as any music being made in the world right now.

Sampha Sisay is a soft spoken, shy 28-year-old south London singer-songwriter and producer much admired in the upper echelons of modern pop. Before surfacing with his own debut album, he sang hooks and made samples for Drake, Kanye West, Beyonce and Solange Knowles.

The Mercury Prize winning Process, however, demonstrates little of the superstar swagger of American hip hop and R’n’B. It is almost painfully convoluted, a wracked internal monologue taking place in dreamily introverted sonic spaces. It is also moodily brilliant, quietly touching and spookily beautiful.

 

In some ways, its aura of chilled out otherness makes it a typical Mercury winner, with the kind of artful beauty essayed by previous winners such as Anthony & The Johnsons and James Blake. Word was the judging panel was split, with vociferous factions for the much bolder attack of poet Kate Tempest and rapper J Hus. Sampha's Process is an album it is impossible to dislike, the hallmark of a compromise winner. It may also, however, prove hard for the general public to love. Or, at least, hard to get to know well enough to love. It takes a lot of listening to unlock its secrets. But it is worth spending time with. In its own quiet way, it carries a lot of power.

It is an album heavy with loss and grief. The key song is (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. Written in the wake of his mother’s death from cancer in 2015, it is a desperately sad ballad about processing feelings through music. He played the song twice at the Mercury ceremony, unadorned at the piano. What has pushed this album into the orbit of a critic's Prize, however, is not a weepy ballad, however affecting. It is the way Sampha processes these feelings using the modern digital technology of the recording studio to conjure a space age quality of alienation.

Written in response to a health scare, opening track Plastic 100 C creates a hallucinatory sense of weightless drift emphasised by background samples of moon landing chatter from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. “You touch down in the base of my fears / Houston can-can-can you hear?” murmurs Sampha.

Major Tom would understand, and there is a hint of Berlin Bowie about Samphas blend of electronics and cracked emotion, albeit with little of the Starman's charismatic showmanship. Process is an album fuelled by anxiety. Blood On Me is a fever dream of pursuit and fear. Reverse Faults is a claustrophobic miasma of guilt and jealousy. While piano and vocals lie at the intimate core of his arrangements, everything around constantly mutates in a haze of colliding synthetic and acoustic instruments, layered vocals and distorted beats. Emotions, though, ring out loud and true.

It is easy to see what attracted the global pop elite to Sampha. His voice is soft and high strung, rasping at the edges, thick and warm underneath, constantly fluctuating as if every line is wrought with feeling. But while stars use it for hooklines, left to his own devices, the music Sampha makes is almost the opposite of mainstream pop, exploring inner spaces rather than striking out for the dancefloor.

As an introverted soulman, Sampha might be considered analogous with a much admired American maverick of warped, emotional singer-songwriter R'n'B, Frank Ocean. But he lacks even Ocean's charismatic strangeness. At the ceremony, I watched him wandering around, a gentle, portly, unassuming character, without entourage, apparently content in his own isolation. Nobody was even approaching for selfies. He makes for a strangely invisible modern pop star, an increasingly rare species who prefers to let his music do the talking.

Does Process deserve to be hailed as album of the year? Well, Ed Sheeran might have something to say about that. His multi million selling one man tour de force speaks to where pop culture is right now, rather than where it might aspire to be. His songs are the ones the whole world is singing, an escapist salve for harsher realities.

If Sampha has anything universal to say about the state of the pop nation, it is as an example of a maverick individual existing apparently free of commercial constraints, using the technology of our ultra-connected digital era to share an intensely private world with other like minded souls. He certainly deserves to be heard, and this prize might help that. But I've got a feeling Process may drift off with other lost Mercury winners, just too disconnected from the self-promoting hurly burly of mainstream pop culture to resonate outside of the world of highbrow critical prizes.