Review: Lahai by Sampha — ⋆⋆⋆⋆
After six years, UK-based singer Sampha is back with his smokey and experimental R&B album, “Lahai”, wherein he welcomes the listener into his dreamlike soundscape.
Sampha is not an unknown player in the music scene. Famous for his R&B and Soul tracks, the UK-based singer-songwriter gained recognition through his collaborations with artists such as Solange and Kendrick Lamar. Prior to “Lahai”, he released “Process” in 2017. While it still holds up, it does feel like a product of its time; his voice begging for longing and love, drifting above an electro-sound that in hindsight feels similar to other artists at the time.
“Lahai” feels elevated. The song ‘Stereo Colour Sound (Shaman’s Dream)’ opens the new album and immediately brings the listener into Sampha’s universe. While still experimental with its sound, he’s brought down to earth, away from the floaty vibe of six years prior. Sampha has aged, which is reflected in the song. The first lyric prompts Sampha to awaken, “Bro, Samph, bro, wake up”, alluding to the idea of Sampha being a shaman, as well as the beginning of a new album and a new era.
‘Spirit 2.0’ follows up on the previous song and shows a vulnerable and exposed Sampha, wondering where to go and what to do, who to leave space for and when to protect himself. The song reminds any media literate person of the hero’s journey, especially when he references “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, a novella written by Richard Bach in 1970. It follows the journey of a young seagull who dreams of wanting more than his life in the flock. Eventually, he spreads his wings and discovers himself.
That idea continues in the next song, ‘Dancing Circles’, where the music becomes more frenetic despite his smooth tone. He paints a picture of various places in London, spinning rapid stories about him and a significant other, not unlike a lively yet chaotic, summertime relationship. ‘Suspended’ concludes this story, even more frantic and autobiographical than the previous song. ‘Satellite Business’ forms the epilogue, mourning the love that is now lost.
His storytelling compared to the previous album has noticeably improved. Sampha isn’t afraid to take the listener by the hand and guide us through the story, to pause and quicken whenever he feels like it.
After previously referencing the novella “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, he names track 6, ‘Jonathan L. Seagull’, urging the listener to respect the album’s order and pay attention to the lyrics. It’s a new chapter that stands as the turning point in the album. A gentle choir soothes Sampha, not unlike a Greek chorus, that he doesn’t need to beat himself up for supposedly falling behind.
Just like the eponymous seagull, introspection allows him to see that his individual, personal, and artistic path ought to be embraced.
It is after ‘Inclination Compass (Tenderness)’ that a familiar Sampha returns with ‘Only’. A track that would work well on the radio, as well as his previous discography. It’s a rather self-possessed song, wherein he owns his decisions.
The song allows the listener to breathe after the heavy first half of the album, though it’s quickly cut off with the interlude, ‘Time Piece’. A female voice says, “Time doesn’t exist, a time machine”, in French over and over again. These twenty seconds pull the album together, remembering the listener that its main theme is time and remembrance. Sampha serves as a man remembering moments of his past as well as a shaman trying to find meaning between those moments.
The final chapter begins with ‘Can’t Go Back’, its beat part electric, part Sampha’s heart pushing him forward. As the track suggests, he accepts he can’t return, nor can he call upon a time machine or the spirits for help.
‘Evidence’ is a tentatively hopeful track; a glimpse of Sampha’s willingness to be more positive for short instances. The music works alongside the lyrics, quick and jazzy with truncated notes. From the interlude, ‘Wave Therapy’, it goes into the first piano-focused piece ‘What If You Hypnotise Me?’ (featuring Léa Sen) wherein Sampha wishes to give words to those feelings he observed in ‘Evidence’ through hypnosis. The practice of hypnosis ties back into his dual role as artist and shaman; the spirituality of the album is ever-present.
Léa Sen comes in at the outro as the spirit he has been calling upon, promising to help him.
Finally, the album concludes with track 14, ‘Rose Tint’, where dreamy yet unsettling instrumentals pull Sampha back into a slumber. Multiple voices simmer in the background, as though surrounding him — the shaman — while he ends his religious practice.
While the experimental sound and multiple interludes might not be everyone’s cup of tea, Sampha has displayed that he has become a master of his craft; a soulful artist one needs to look out for.
Lahai by Sampha — ⋆⋆⋆⋆
Genre: R&B, Soul
Released: October 20th, 2023
Want to hear more? Check out Sampha’s full album!