Sampha Returns to His Roots on Lahai

The English singer/songwriter and producer goes deep into his own history and spirituality on his sophomore LP

Music Reviews Sampha
Sampha Returns to His Roots on Lahai

Few artists shaped the sound of the 2010s as much as Sampha. Having built a reputation as a cutting-edge tastemaker, there was a time when it felt like the South London-hailing singer, songwriter, and producer was everywhere all at once, thanks to his unforgettable vocals, visionary production skills and soul-baring lyricism. He set the tone for 2013 Drake deep cuts “Too Much” and “The Motion,” lent his voice to tracks by Beyonce, Kanye West and Frank Ocean and provided production, songwriting and instrumentation for the likes of Solange, Florence and the Machine, Robyn and FKA Twigs. By the time he released his 2017 debut album Process—to rave reviews—he’d already built up the kind of resume that many artists can only dream about. At just 28 years old, he’d climbed to the top of the mountain, garnered critical and commercial acclaim and collaborated with artists he admired and grew up listening to. So—what comes next?

After years of nonstop work and external accolades, Sampha opted to take a step back and turn inward. “I was just dealing with a few things,” he says simply. He became a father, welcoming his first child, a daughter, into the world in 2020. He began work on his sophomore record, Lahai, the way he always does—in solitude, taking refuge in art and finding inspiration in Kodwo Eshun’s 1998 book on Afrofuturism in music, More Brilliant Than the Sun. He was captivated by Richard Bach’s self-reflective, allegorical fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull and absorbed the teachings of English physicist Brian Cox. The ideas present in these texts opened his eyes to new worldviews and became cornerstones to the foundation of his second album.

Lahai is very much the culmination of this perspective-shifting period in Sampha’s life, and sees the ever forward-thinking artist pushing the envelope by experimenting with new sounds, lyric structures and ideas. The impact of the last few years’ influence is evident—Lahai is a transformative album that explores themes like afrofuturism and magical realism across 14 tracks that span a multitude of genres, including soul, rap, jazz, dance, jungle and West African music. And it’s a record that’s as intimate as it is imaginative. Over the course of the album’s 38-minute runtime, Sampha embarks on an introspective journey that sees him embracing love, self-acceptance and spirituality as ways of increasing his own awareness and understanding of the world around him.

The album opens with the frantic, piano-driven stream of consciousness “Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream),” where Sampha laments existentialism amidst the always insistent passage of time (“I miss you, time misuse, time flies, life issues”). He echoes that spiritual searching on upbeat, rap-driven second single “Only,” one of the project’s standouts. The track sees Sampha rejecting hustle culture and putting self-healing and the people around him first, as he croons “I been on this grind like it’s gonna break my fall, careerism pot hole, like where my loved ones go?”

Rediscovering the self by embracing the little things in life is a recurring theme throughout the project. “Spirit 2.0,” the album’s ethereal second song, emphasizes the power of love and spirituality in the healing process (“Waves will catch you, light will catch you, love will catch you, spirit gon’ catch you”). Meanwhile, “Jonathan L. Seagull,” an uplifting, soulful track driven by a heavenly choir, stresses the importance of finding peace by honoring human differences, with lines like “You are not me, and that’s okay” and “Even though we’ve been through the same, doesn’t always mean we feel the same.” It also explores the transformative power of love and encourages us to find proof of greater meaning in one another. On the gentle ballad “Evidence,” he sings to a loved one: “You’re evidence, elegant, best of intentions, prayerful being had those beautiful lessons, lovely way of seeing things, making me believe in things.”

Lahai sees Sampha figuring out how to navigate this brave new world by forging links with his past (fitting, considering its title is taken from his paternal grandfather’s name, which is also his middle name). He sounds self-aware and conscious of the impact his words and actions can have—both on the people in his life and the larger world around him. Joan Didion once said that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Lahai is an album that exemplifies that principle, as we see Sampha accepting responsibility and stepping into his future by evaluating the life’s path he’s walked so far and reconnecting with his innermost self. “Can’t we go back to how we were before?” he pleads on “Suspended” before answering his own shout into the void on “Can’t Go Back”: No, but “you can move forward slower.”

Elizabeth Braaten is a writer from Houston, Texas

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