The Mercury Prize is the most subjective of awards – no counting of sales figures, no academy or fan votes – just 12 people in a room arguing. For every supporter of whatever the judges name the album of the year, there will be an equal and opposite detractor. I’m with them this time. Process, the debut album by 28-year-old south Londoner Sampha Sisay, is a marvel.
As both a producer and singer, Sampha looks forwards musically, with bold electronic brushstrokes and unorthodox instrumentation, but also offers the emotion of a more straightforward singer-songwriter.
His voice is capable of showboating but stays soft and sad. There is palpable tragedy in his lyrics, especially on the ballad (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano, which he performed twice at last night’s ceremony. It’s about the family instrument on which he learned his craft, but also about his mother, who died from cancer two years ago. He lost his father to the same disease when he was nine, and dedicated his victory to his parents.
His mother’s illness slowed the making of this album. Sampha has been a noteworthy musician since 2011, when he appeared on songs by Jessie Ware and SBTRKT. Many have been expecting a great album since then, with expectations bolstered following impressive spots on albums by Drake, Kanye West and Solange Knowles. Now they have it.
Thankfully the ceremony as a whole seemed to be back on track, following irritating recent fiddles that included not letting every artist perform and eliminating six albums before the rest. The Mercury’s fascination is in its presentation of 12 wildly different British and Irish albums – from Ed Sheeran’s, which was number one for 17 weeks, to Dinosaur’s, which has sold 438 copies since being nominated – on an equal footing.
They were all in with a chance, and this year, for me at least, the right man won.