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The British producer-singer who’s worked with Beyoncé, Drake and Kanye releases a powerful debut album of experimental R&B about death and grief
Pop history is filled with backroom figures who were desperate to transcend their supporting role: from Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who somehow cobbled together a solo career despite being, as one commentator perceptively noted, “tone deaf and rhythmically challenged”, to Timbaland, ever eager to race out from behind the mixing desk, elbow Missy Elliott out of the way and once more test his demented belief that his undoubted genius as a producer was matched by his genius as a rapper. But no one can lay the charge of an insatiable desire for the limelight at the door of Sampha Sisay.
He is, by all accounts, the whole pop auteur package: he can write, produce and furthermore sing – in a gorgeous, bruised, understated voice. But he has hardly pursued his solo career with rapacious intensity: before the songs that make up his debut album started to emerge last year, he’d released a grand total of one single and two EPs (the latter seeming to consist of sketchy ideas he couldn’t find a home for elsewhere) in six years. His talents have been employed by everyone from Drake to SBTRKT and Jesse Ware, and he appeared on three of the most widely acclaimed albums of 2016: Kanye West’s Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s Endless and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. But even as a collaborator, he’s evinced an oddly self-effacing touch. He sang on Mine, a single from Beyonce’s eponymous 2013 album, but you wouldn’t have known from the credits, which neglected to mention him at all.