Sampha’s new album, Lahai, partly inspired by fatherhood, demonstrates a masterly ability to meld different genres into a fascinating new coherence. By Shaad D’Souza.
Sampha Sisay possesses one of the truly unique voices of the 21st century. Somehow high and sonorous at the same time, it floats across every song it’s employed on, providing the kind of dazzling textural element that can’t be mimicked or synthesised.
I first heard Sampha on “Play”, a song by the underrated British electronic singer Katy B, from 2014. This was relatively late in the piece – he had already shot to global fame thanks to two features on Drake’s massive 2013 album, Nothing Was the Same, and a credit on Beyoncé’s self-titled album, from the same year – and I was amazed by how Sampha managed to sound simultaneously lithe and statuesque, hummingbird-like in his ability to telegraph motion and stillness in one moment. The song’s production, also by Sampha, is equally astounding: pop-footwork that melts seamlessly into dembow, gilded with a seemingly iridescent synth line.
I was disappointed to find this wasn’t Sampha’s usual mode. Early in his career he was mostly cast as a relatively traditional balladeer, almost in the mode of James Blake: a solemn piano man whose songs happened to feature experimental electronic window dressing. He quickly became a go-to collaborator for pop and hip-hop artists and was always employed to provide this kind of grounded pathos – singing backup for Solange on “Don’t Touch My Hair”, providing clarity in contrast to Kanye’s chaos on “Saint Pablo”, adding to the mood of maturity and religiosity on Stormzy’s This Is What I Mean. His 2017 debut, Process, largely followed this model. These were rich ballads occasionally shot through with moments of glitched-out unease: rarely, if ever, did Sampha slip into a sound akin to the one he had tried out on “Play”.
There was good reason for that. Process was written in the wake of Sampha’s mother’s death and if he was pigeonholed as a singer of bleak, beautiful paeans, it was because his solo body of work to that point had been filled with them. Lahai, Sampha’s six-years-in-the-making follow-up, sheds some of that sadness. It was inspired in part by new fatherhood, and although it can be anxious and angular, it also contains allusions to nature and classic children’s literature and often returns to images of Sampha’s daughter and family. It’s a dense but totally astounding union of two Samphas: the emotive balladeer and the frenetic musical polymath, working in harmony here to create something that touches on serene jazz and Wassoulou folk music, furious breakbeats and elegant piano minimalism.
Across the album, Sampha blends genre with a deft, basically imperceptible touch. On the lead single, “Spirit 2.0”, an undulating minimal synth line blends freely into a trap beat into a series of slippery, cascading jazz breaks. It’s a fast, twitchy song that also sounds remarkably peaceful; Sampha’s voice is so magnetic it automatically papers over any seams. But this, too, is a kind of trickery: he’s switching cadence every few lines, from plain-spoken mumbling to a fast, crammed-in flow that almost resembles the Atlanta rapper Future.
Nearly every song on Lahai achieves this level of fluidity and intensity. The effect is disorientating as much as it is invigorating. On a song such as “Can’t Go Back”, on which Sampha sings about fatherhood with equal parts reverence and anxiety, he’s like the eye of a storm, his voice a rich clarion beam as a jungle beat explodes beneath him. The funky, strutting pop song “Only” plays like a spiritual descendent of “Play”, with Sampha singing about “moving on faith and faith only” over a hypnotic synth part that flips and contorts.
In the same way each song draws from multiple genres or musical traditions at the same time, many of these songs blur the lines between the organic and the synthetic. Unlike, say, the contrast between dry vocals and heavily autotuned ones on a pop song, the joinery here is invisible, single words or melodic lines shifting from warm to metallic and back in an instant. On “Suspended”, Sampha’s rapid-fire delivery is prone to degrading and splitting apart occasionally, creating moments of cool unease on a song about being “lifted” by love. Towards the end of “Wave Therapy”, a string interlude, the strings begin to loop, their richness and beauty suddenly made inhuman.
Piano is as important to Lahai as it was to Process, but drums are the key instrument here: they power nearly every song and are almost never used in any traditional way. Sometimes programmed by Sampha and at other times played by London jazz drummer Yussuf Dayes and Black Midi drummer Morgan Simpson, they always elevate Sampha’s vocals, acting like obstacle courses for him to duck and weave through. Sampha has always been fond of unusual time signatures, and on such a drum-forward record that becomes even clearer: these songs are irregular, wonky things, with little sense of closure or resolution on any given track.
Because of elements like these, Lahai feels genuinely futuristic. Almost anything with metallic synth parts or the slightest sense of abrasion is described as “future music” these days, which means the term carries little meaning right now; but listening to this record, I couldn’t help but feel this blend of genres and styles, and the ease with which Sampha draws in organic and inorganic elements could present a vision of how mainstream pop music will sound in 20 or 30 years.
As fusion music, the goal isn’t to melt everything down into one genreless soup, as seems to be the case with so much contemporary music. Instead, Lahai is made with carefully interlocking parts that fit together naturally. It makes total sense to blend footwork and piano meditation and sing-rapping, as Sampha does on “What If You Hypnotise Me?”, or jazz and minimal synthwork, as he does on “Stereo Colour Cloud”. You sense this is simply the way his brain works, and the results are so coherent it’s easy to imagine this becoming the dominant mode of pop at some point in the near – or far – future.
Even if this doesn’t become the blueprint for the Top 40 – and most likely it won’t – it does provide a handy blueprint for Sampha, who may have at one point been at risk of becoming known as a hook-singer-for-hire and little more. Lahai suggests that for all his vocal talents, he is just as brilliant a world-builder: someone who can bring together an inordinate amount of disparate elements and create something aerodynamic and sharply defined with them. It’s telling that, after listening to Lahai, Sampha’s voice seems like one of the least interesting things about him.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Fluid futures".
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