Sampa the Great‘s first full-length release, 2019’s The Return, was a well-deserved triumph of top-tier singing, writing, and rapping that demonstrated her range of skills and progressive point of view in no uncertain terms. On her new album, As Above, So Below, Sampa the Great continues to rise, proving her namesake greatness time after time even alongside a breathtaking roster of collaborators from across Africa and the diaspora.
The opening track, “Shadows”, makes this album’s perspective clear from the start. A sparse, mbira-driven melody paves the way for an eerily stunning and introspective refrain: “I know who you are.” Certainly, Sampa does, rapping that “They’ll never be who I am / All of this lineage, this journey, this spirit” – and she is right. As Above, So Below frames Sampa within the contours of her journeys literal (born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, studied in California, primarily based in Australia) and figurative. She recognizes the movements and forces that have made her the star she is and those who have tried to stop her, and she acknowledges each one with grace and power across the album.
Subsequent tracks are less spacious but just as poignant. “Lane” is an uncompromising retort to systemic racism and discrimination in the music industry (Sampa the Great was infamously disrespected when the ARIA Music Awards chose to cut her Best Hip-Hop Artist acceptance speech from their broadcast in favor of a commercial) in which the artist’s sentiments simmer behind calm, measured delivery (“You were staying in your lane / You was thinking I had one”) shattered by a heated verse by rapper Denzel Curry.
“Never Forget” follows, a tribute to the genius of classic Zamrock in both Chewa and English that features Sampa’s sister Mwanjé and cousin Tio Nason on vocals as well as Zambian rapper Chef 187. Here, Sampa makes clear the musical history leading up to her own art. Later, she brings in acid-soaked guitars from Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda, leader of legendary Zamrock group W.I.T.C.H., to further eviscerate the toxic mainstream of commercial music on “Can I Live?” “It’s all murder / Murder, the way you love me,” she growls, rejecting the conditional devotion of the industry. Her critiques continue through the album, culminating with the closing track “Let Me Be Great”, which features the one and only Angélique Kidjo repeating the titular demand as Sampa reminds her listeners how nimbly she can let loose with cutting verses.
There is no shortage of brilliant cuts between these milestones. “Mask On” features Joey Bada$$, crisp beats, and high-voltage electronics. Sampa goes mostly solo on proud, thrilling “Bona” and more melancholy and the mid-tempo “Tilibobo”, her voice shifting effortlessly from velvet to grit to deep emotion as the situation requires. Quick rhythms and the falsetto voice of James Sakala propel “Imposter Syndrome” forward with a sense of urgency. Mwanjé returns with golden tones on blissful “Lo Rain”, sounding like pure R&B magic. London-based Kojey Radical raps alongside Sampa on “IDGAF”, both of them finding serenity against societal inequity through personal satisfaction (“I think it’s beneath me now / I’m not even tripping”).
Every bit of what her moniker professes, Sampa the Great continues to be a crucial voice in the global hip-hop scene. On As Above, So Below, just as on The Return, she makes music with incredible clarity of purpose and affirms a sense of interconnected self and heritage that makes her writing, arranging, sampling, and guest list all the more compelling. Sampa is soaring, and she’s not afraid to let everyone know.