Stop me if you’ve heard this one...Three sad boi’s and Olivia Pope walk into a bar…
THAT was the the scene last Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club when Sampha returned to play his second sold out show in the space of a few months in the nation’s capital. On his latest LP, Process, the British singer/producer deftly mixes old soul with a cold, machine elegance that demands a certain level of sophistication to go with your feels. On stage the multitudes of subtle urbanities served as both an asset and a hindrance to this rising star.
Sampha’s stripped down future soul works best when he is chasing down demons from his past and there some astounding moments in his set that amplified that. A late in the set take on “Blood On Me” saw the crowd bathed in an aggravated red light that heightened Radiohead-ish paranoia of lyrics like “I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me”. But it was in moments where the tension was dialed back on tracks like “Kora Sings” and “Incomplete Kisses” that the sparseness of the instrumentation revealed how much room this budding superstar has for growth. On the latter, and on album standout “Timmy’s Prayer”, the open space of a club practically begged for a “full band” treatment. Throw a fretless bass and some Prince-worthy guitar on top of “Prayer” and you’ve got the 80’s jam playing in the credits of Mannequin that the spaces left in the song currently suggest.
But then - and this is the question - is this a true evolution of soul that we’re witnessing? Surely Sampha has a deep love of the legions of “sadboys” that came before him. Have glitchy electronics, after years of suffering at the hands of brutish EDM “artists,” finally found a home in the human heart of the 21st Century? That Sampha’s voice is peerless is without question, but is this new paradigm of sanguine warmth cozied up to chilled electric precision simply the most accurate representation of our collective “soul” in 2017? While the verdict is still out, there’s a strong case to be made that the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Regardless, his set-closing take on “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano”, a song about the loss of his mother (and well, a lot of people in his life) kept it grounded in the familiar with just a haunted voice and the spare, slightly broken chords of a piano.
Opener Mel Devisa played a far too brief set that featured her alone on stage with a spotlight, a bass, and her otherworldly voice. As plagued by technical issues as her set was, the unexpected pops, crackles and mic dropouts seemed to amplify her powerful presence rather than derail it. Had it gone the other way, it would have been a shame, because her exceptional 2016 LP, Kiid, is well worth getting to know, and these shows with Sampha are certainly bringing her voice to a larger audience.