SAMPHA, Electric Brixton – Evening Standard, 22 Nov 2016

It was easy to tell how hot Sampha Sisay is right now from the temperature inside a packed Electric Brixton. Although it was caused by an effort to  combat secondary ticketing, the still epic queue down the street at showtime also indicated the south Londoner’s current status.

With another London show twice the size already booked for the spring, he is primed for a breakthrough 2017 based on an impeccable pedigree. Known as far back as 2011 for a duet with Jessie Ware, Valentine, he has gone on to be the principal voice of two marvellous future-soul albums by SBTRKT and has worked on recordings at the cutting edge of US R&B by Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Solange Knowles. This is the moment that he takes the spotlight on his own, with a debut album coming in February.

He was literally a solo act for some of this evening’s show, fingers tumbling over his keyboard on the starkly autobiographical (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano and Too Much. His voice, generally restrained in his recordings to date, had real fire here, sounding capable of anything without resorting to showboating.

But his four-piece band was a fascinating combination too. Kelsey Lu, an intruging new artist in her own right, joined him on cello and high, contrasting backing vocals. Between them, his recent single Blood On Me became a riot of percussion both real and electronic, while he strode in front of his bank of instruments briefly to play the pop star.

In his press coverage to date, much has been made of his bleak personal life. At just 27 he has already lost both parents to cancer. “Father, I hope you’re listening,” he repeated towards the end of Can’t Get Close, while a disembodied choir provided a celestial backdrop. “My ribcage opened, my heart ballooned,” he sang on Timmy’s Prayer, an alien synth line snaking around his enveloping tones.

He has experienced the required heartbreak to produce genuine soul music, sometimes in a guise that couldn’t be more modern, sometimes as simple as a keyboard and that extraordinary voice. Get ready to hear a lot more of it.