The most important music award in the UK has proved its relevance by recognising one of the best emerging artists.
On Thursday night, our biggest fears did not materialise. Ed Sheeran did not win the Mercury Prize, nor did Stormzy.
After releasing a sub-par list of nominees in July, the always erratic and never boring ceremony kept true to its roots, and brought to the stage one of the most interesting new artists working in the UK today.
For those who applauded the years of Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, The xx or alt-J, Sampha Sisay’s winning debut album Process may not be exactly your cup of tea.
It’s overly vulnerable, borderline Drake-like lyrics can seem a bit too personal in an age where concept albums have left intimacy aside. Life stories are now mostly told by rappers and R&B singers.
Sampha is here to change that. And that’s what separates him from one of his most undeserved competitors at the Mercurys – Ed Sheeran.
Sheeran’s guitar-weeping melodies, with a few keywords to appeal to the larger audience, feel like cliches we’ve heard before.
Castle On The Hill’s coming of age story of lost love sounds sounds like fake nostalgia. “Running from the law through the backfields and getting drunk with my friends,” Sheeran sings. I shrug.
The same applies to Shape Of You, Sheeran’s adored single where he talks about “doing shots” in a bar with his friends. I look away.
But Sampha is of a different calibre. The man who some still remember as the featuring voice of SBTRKT has found his voice, and has put thought and care into his first album.
In Blood On Me, the artist describes a gang of faceless “grey hoodies” who “smell blood” on him – urging the artist to keep moving and creating.
Unlike Sheeran, Sampha speaks in careful metaphors, mixing pop, soul and R&B with a little pinch of trip hop. The result is Mercury Prize material.
In other songs, he goes deeper, more personal, speaking of his mother who passed away with cancer or his brother who he fails to visit.
Sampha is obsessed with family, and brings his first record home with the honesty of an exciting new artist.
This year’s Mercury Prize saw many great albums in the running. alt-J’s Relaxer is nothing short of a master piece, even if it is the band’s least-balanced work, and Glass Animals’ How To Be A Human Being is a layered, puzzling piece which requires time to dissect.
With Sheeran, the jury endangered the continuity of a prize known for taking risks. With Sampha, they proved it still does.