After a six-year hiatus following his last record, R&B pioneer Sampha returned with “Lahai” on Oct. 20 – a short but sweet LP that more than justifies its wait.
Sampha’s last project “Process,” released in 2017, subverted the typical R&B formula through its introspective and meditative lyrics mixed with unique and minimal production. Since then, it has been practically radio silence from the artist, only broken by a short feature run in the past year. In the summer of 2023, Sampha announced the release of “Lahai” accompanied by the record’s first single, “Only.” He dropped one more single, “Spirit 2.0,” before releasing the album on Oct. 20, 2023.
The album’s first track, “Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream),”opens with a wall of light and shimmery arpeggios interwoven to construct the first musical tapestry of the record. A spoken word portion enters the soundscape followed by a tight electronic snare loop that mirrors the chaos of the arpeggiating synths. These techno-futuristic melodies cut Sampha’s simultaneously smokey and sweet voice.
Meditative and introspective, his lyrics discuss time and the dialectical impermanence and infinity he feels passing through life, “I miss you, time, misuse / Time flies, life issues … Facing infinity, my demons fly / And chasе me on the ground / We grow a pair of wings and fly on high (Nah, you’rе flying).”
Sampha is a significantly different man here than he was on “Process,” not necessarily through means of maturation but more so metamorphosis. His lyrics are much more hopeful and ponderous; his anxieties, although present, are supplemented by an appreciation for life.
“Dancing Circles” feels like the perfect example of this evolution. The anxious, staccato-style piano and stressed lyrics of the first movement feel very reminiscent of “Process.” Yet, as he adds on the secondary piano melody, the built-up tension is released. He formulates a musical push-and-pull, simultaneously stretching and releasing tension through layering the two melodies. Many of the tracks make excellent use of this type of musical progression, composing new meaning through the addition of new textures as the track goes on.
“Suspended” makes the listener feel as though they are literally suspended within the tense and lush soundscape. The plucky piano lead mixed with the percussive background vocals creates this unwavering feeling emphasized in his repetition throughout the chorus. The beat drop halfway through the song releases this build, freeing both Sampha and the listener from their melodic tension.
Sampha creates symphonic breadth from so little by employing a varied musical palette. Vocalizing harmonies in the background of many tracks, along with the use of clean output piano melodies mixed with airy synths, lead to a heavenly and larger-than-life atmosphere. Yet despite the intricate production and carefully curated library of sounds, Sampha makes sure to leave room for his most crucial instrument – his voice. His vocal tone is distinctly the heart of the album.
The album’s highlight is without a doubt “Jonathan L. Seagull,” named after the famous Richard Bach novella. In his lyrics throughout the album, Sampha discusses many of the same themes found within the book, including perfectionism, flying and finding meaning through one’s self-discovery. In this song, these themes come to a head. The repetition of the chorus, “You are not me and that’s okay (That’s okay) / Seasons come (Seasons come), seasons cry (Cry) / Seasons grow and seasons die (Oh-oh) / How high can a bird ever fly? Ever fly?” makes it feel as if it is some sort of mantric staying; a hopeful proverb which he lives by. The song is just as powerful sonically. Sampha’s falsetto vocals throughout the track combined with the soothing and rich piano harmonies lead to an experience of utter bliss. It is a more straightforward and stripped-back song than the rest of the record, but the beauty of it is found within its simplicity.
Although close, the album is not perfect. The final few tracks lack the spark found within the rest of the record. The tracks are strong in a thematic and musical sense, yet they tend to lack the emotional gut-punch that was consistent throughout the album’s first two-thirds.
Regardless, these are small blemishes on a beautifully realized piece of art. Sampha has triumphed over the hype that a six-year wait brings, soaring over any expectations. Whatever amount of time needed to complete his next project, he deserves it. Sampha has proven that he knows how to deliver a moving and powerful experience that will be listened to for far longer than it was awaited.