3 Feb 2024

Review: Lahai by Sampha

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 3 February 2024

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Photo: Jesse Crankston

Even before he won the Mercury Prize in 2017, Sampha had begun to collaborate with American artists, and since then the list has only gotten longer, featuring names like Drake, Solange, and Kendrick Lamar. It’s easy to see why: he possesses a remarkably distinctive, buttery voice that’d add wattage to any tune. His solo music is very British, though, from his accent outward, and on his second album, expands to include greater geographic influence.

‘Dancing Circles’, alludes to a style of dance that stretches across multiple cultures and back to medieval times. I suspect Sampha is referring to a more contemporary club setting though.

But the music hints at some of his other touchstones. He told RNZ’s Maggie Tweedie that “lineage and ancestry were on [his] mind” while making the record. His family has roots in Sierra Leone, and West African folk music was one of the genres on his mind during production.

The song ‘Spirit 2.0’ was a direct effort to emulate the style with electronic instruments.

Sampha had become a father since his first LP, which informed the themes of family on this one, down to giving it his middle name, Lahai. It’s also notably more upbeat and optimistic, with a lot of call and response vocals, and busy drums. 

They sometimes directly nod to the jungle, a genre with another familial link: Sampha grew up with older brothers immersed in the UK rave scene. He told Maggie Tweedie he’s wanted to incorporate these rhythms for a long time, and finally found the opportunity.

Lahai does feature plenty of inviting melodies, with Sampha wringing maximum soul out of his remarkable voice. But it’s notable how much he’s willing to experiment. 

Rather than become a strict balladeer after the massive success of his 2017 single ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’, he followed his muse in much more dynamic ways.

The music behind him is always interesting, with bass from Spain’s El Guincho and string arrangements thanks to Canadian Owen Pallett, just two names from a raft of players and producers. 

But the vision remains Sampha’s, and on Lahai it’s particularly inviting.