Sampha is an artist that doesn’t need much fanfare. Most recognized for his features on Kendrick Lamar’s “Father Time” and Kanye West’s “St. Pablo,” Sampha’s powerful voice does not need dense instrumental support, catchy hooks, layered harmonies or vibrant production. Instead, Sampha opts for concise lyricism from a neo-soul lens. For Sampha, less has always been more.
That was certainly the case for his 2016 critically-acclaimed LP, Process, but since the release of the now seven-year-old album, Sampha hasn’t been heard save for his features on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers and Travis Scott’s UTOPIA. With any extended hiatus like Sampha’s, the pressure mounts to produce a record that will both deliver sonically and showcase his artistic growth. His newest record, Lahai, certainly does both.
Lahai, named for his grandfather, completely shifts the artist’s outlook from Process’ grief-filled look on life to one of happiness after the birth of his child in 2020. This new headspace isn’t all joyous; however, the album looks at joys of happiness in a post-pandemic, existential lens, saying fatherhood changed his view from living for himself, to how long can he live for his daughter. This outlook on life makes for an album filled with themes of spirituality and the interconnectedness of humanity.
The album opens with “Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream),” a hectic high-pitched piano paired with a woman’s voice echoing “I miss you, time, misuse / Time flies, life issues,” placing the listener in an anxiety-filled state that creates an alarm clock feeling on the track. The relief comes on the song’s final lyrics, where Sampha shares, “that’s where I felt it / some, some kind of spirit,” transitioning to the lead single of the album, “Spirit 2.0.” The track taps into themes of piety and meaning, referencing Richard Bach’s novella “Jonathan Livingston Seagull: A Story,” a story following a seagull who transcends to a higher existence through the power of self-realization and reflection — an important metaphor for both the story and the album.
The hopeful theme is quickly replaced with daunting piano on “Dancing Circles.” The track follows Sampha’s memories of losing time with his love, but unfortunately for him, they’re just that — memories. The song continues with a comparison of the two lovers to the gulls of Bach’s story; they are “flying away from each other,” leaving the listener wondering what could happen next. The album continues with “Suspended,” a chaotic track that tackles the panicked memories of where the relationship could have gone wrong. The chaos is juxtaposed with tranquil pianos on “Satellite Business,” where Sampha realigns with his spirit, willing him forward.
“Jonathan L. Seagull,” which directly addresses the Bach novella of the same name, is a neo-soul masterpiece about managing grief. Here, Sampha finally accepts the end of his love after their shared grief, no longer knowing how to continue on his spiritual journey, pining, “How high can a bird ever fly?” The next song “Inclination” follows Sampha processing his grief post-relationship, begging “How about we fly toward the source again,” trying to reclaim his lost love. “Only” is a response to his loathing, a song that is full of mixed signals regarding his state. Although Sampha develops a positive message of self-determination, it’s clear he isn’t ready to love again, confessing “From love, I would run it just here to disown me.”
“Can’t Go Back” depicts a shift in Sampha’s love. Instead of placing his spirit in unrequited love, he finds it in his daughter. The song’s powerful lyricism paints a vivid picture, and elegant saxophones fuse jazz tonality with soft piano, creating the album’s climax. “Evidence” is a daydream-filled ode to his daughter, moving Sampha to finally believe in his spirit again. “Wave Therapy” is a graceful orchestral interlude, transitioning back into the fast-paced piano of “What If You Hypnotise Me?” The track depicts Sampha’s anxiety in recalling memories of his love, hoping someone can hypnotize the thoughts out of him. The track concludes with an angelic Léa Sen outro, delicately singing, “The Spirit of your memories gone blind / There’s answers in your body entwined.”
The album concludes with “Rose Tint,” a song that sees Sampha finally looking at his experiences with a newfound optimism. His hindsight allows him to see he would not be who he is now, both as a father and as a person, without his grief-filled past.
Sampha’s delicate vocals over limited but elegant instrumentation was the perfect medium to deliver his second studio album Lahai. The project ties together complex themes of spirituality, love and maturity across its 41-minute runtime. The polished but narrow array of instruments perfectly juxtaposes the complexities of love and grief, showing an artist who has matured significantly both musically and personally over his seven year hiatus.
Daily Arts Writer Nickolas Holcomb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.