The vocals of Sampha — earnest and at times imperfect, while somehow forceful and fragile, often in the same breath — have an ability to cut through another artist's song, regardless of the star power attached to it.
Just ask the sterling list of recent collaborators: Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Solange, among others. Their songs have all been elevated by the presence of this rising 28-year-old R&B singer-songwriter from South London. Naturally, he has learned from them as well.
"I've been fortunate to be in the same room with people I admire musically," said the artist born Sampha Sisay during a phone conversation last week at a tour stop in Minnesota.
"It's just been a very cool character-building thing, like analyzing myself as a songwriter or a producer, and building my confidence up."
In February, after years of being mostly a featured singer, Sampha (who opens for the xx on Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion) took his most significant step forward as a solo artist when he released his debut album, "Process." The record has been well received, and as Rolling Stone remarked in its four-star review, proves Sampha is more than a "hook man to pop's most advanced megastars." He is their peer.
The key to creating "Process," Sampha said, was "trying to strike that balance of not compromising my integrity but at the same time, not letting my ego get in the way of me moving forward." He learned to trust engineers and other behind-the-scenes players, while still maintaining his creative authority. Years of collaborations made finding that equilibrium easier, he said.
"I don't have to necessarily carry all of the burden of trying to do everything on my shoulders," Sampha said.
The realization took time, as Sampha's path took an unlikely route. Via Myspace, he met a London producer named Kwes in 2007, which led to more opened doors and eventually the release of "Sundanza," Sampha's 2010 EP of instrumentals for the discerning U.K. label Young Turks. Soon he was producing tracks for blog-friendly British artists like SBTRKT and Jessie Ware.
As he built a reputation for his work as a producer, Sampha began to appear on tracks as a guest singer. When calls came from Drake and West, it was clear his star was rising. Sampha was just as interested in soaking up as much knowledge from the faces he was used to seeing on TV.
"Generally, it's a mixture of being slightly anxious and excited, and not knowing what's going to happen," Sampha said of the high-profile recording sessions. "Just learning from previous experiences, sometimes I try to be prepared, but then also not have too many expectations in terms of what's going to come out of it."
While "Process" is a lean 10 tracks, Sampha had plenty of material for the debut. But he learned another valuable lesson: knowing to stop tinkering when something is finished.
"Most definitely the hardest part is knowing when is a good time to put a full stop on what you're doing," Sampha said.
The final tracklist features some of his best work to date. A standout is the sparse single "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano," which, on the surface, sounds like an ode to a trusted instrument, but is really a tribute to his mother, who died of cancer in 2015.
"They said that it's her time / No tears in sight, I kept the feelings close," he sings.
Sampha said he "was a bit naive" in choosing such a personal song as a single since he'd have to perform it on radio and TV, as he did in January on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." But given the song's intention as an appreciation of his mother's love, Sampha is happy to perform it.
"Sometimes it's hard, especially because maybe family is in the audience if I'm performing at a show, but I like to be able to feel something I'm thinking about," he said. "As much as I'm talking about the impermanence of something, it's a positive thing to remember it and have that feeling."
A few months removed from the release of "Process," Sampha has emerged as a solo artist to watch while still making headlines for collaborations. The latest was "4422," a Sampha standalone track on Drake's "More Life" project from March. As is his wont, Sampha steals the moment in just three, ambiguous but haunting minutes.
The internet has wondered about the song's meaning — guessing anything from phone-number country codes to biblical verses and tax forms — but Sampha isn't saying. ("I think I'll just let people go on about that," he chuckled.) As he's learned over time and demonstrated on "Process," the best songs are often layered with possibilities, and ultimately, better left to interpretation.
"It's not necessarily as complicated as the theories I've seen. I feel like it's quite self-explanatory," Sampha said with a laugh. "There's so many great theories. Some of them are probably better than what I actually intended."