Music

Sampa the Great's 'The Return' Is a Dazzling, Genre-Defying Blend of Hip-Hop, Jazz, and Soul

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Sampa the Great's The Return is both a willfully enigmatic and deeply revealing album. It serves as a dazzling celebration of her cultural and musical heritage that will resonate for years to come.

The Return
Sampa the Great

Ninja Tune

13 September 2019

Some wrestle with it, some deny it, and many just accept it with scant investigation, but your cultural heritage defines who you are. The places, language, and traditions that you grew up with invariably stay with you, shaping your values and beliefs, whether you grew up in Lusaka, New York or Plymouth.

Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana and now based in Melbourne, Sampa the Great understands better than most what it means to be a young, black, southern African woman trying to forge a music career in 2019. On her debut album The Return, she embarks on a defining, introspective journey that sees her steadily chiselling away at personal, professional and musical barriers. In the process, she has challenged herself to understand her cultural heritage through her music better.

However, embarking on such a journey comes with its costs. For Sampa, it has also meant isolating herself from friends and family to comprehensively examine her identity and evaluate the presumptions and values she has about herself, and her personal connections. Unsurprising, then, that this is an album that ably shows profound artistic and personal insight.

Musically, The Return is a genre-defying blend of hip-hop, jazz, and soul, all with a light sprinkling of southern African rhythms. The musical scope on the album is at times dazzling, with songs frequently darting down unexpected musical alleyways. To accompany her on this musical trip, Sampa has enlisted an impressive group of collaborators. Featuring the London jazz collective Steam Down, Ecca Vandal, Jonwayne Silentjay, Thando, Krown, Mandarin Dreams, and others.

Over clipped Afrobeat, and gliding wind instrumentation like a cacophony of twittering birds, opener "Mwana", feels like a musical celebration of her southern African heritage. When it comes, her electric flow illuminates the track with syllables dancing together in perfect harmony.

The stunning, "Freedom" initially canters in on a classic Motown-esque, languid groove before Sampa firmly wrenches it into 2019. Her breezy, soulful vocals give way to tenacious, rapped couplets that detail the obstacles and fundamental sacrifices a black, female artist has to make to succeed. "From the beginnin'/ we never winnin'/They want our image/ we the spark/ You want my art/ what's hot, what's not." This theme continues into "Time's Up." With its minimalist hip-hop backing, Sampa and South Sudanese rapper Krown pull no punches on a bold evisceration of the music industry. With each syllable hitting the target like a sniper's bullet, Sampa and Krown aim squarely at the way the music industry has chewed up and spat out so many embryonic careers. "I see the industry kill dreams of a dreamer."

The gorgeous "Grass Is Greener" is a little more comforting with its neo-soul meets jazz backing. Meanwhile, the punchy "Dare to Fly" marks the point where the album really starts to kick. With stuttering drums and edgy synths, the production has a little more sonic sting in its tail. The stomping "OMG", sees Sampa in fierce form as she celebrates blackness in all its forms. "Never underestimate your highness/ Dripped in melanin/ Galaxy's finest."

With its maverick approach to splicing genres and finding the perfect sample ("Stay Away From Me" by the Sylvers), "Final Form" is probably the closest you'll ever get to Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, and Janelle Monae jamming in a room together. It takes all her promise and undoubted talent and turns it into one, stone-cold, instant classic. It's the kind of song that defies time; sounding like a lost gem and a modern marvel all at the same time.

The jazzy "Don't Give Up" featuring Mandarin Dream, coasts in on a smooth wave of late-night trumpets and a slinking double bass line. It finds Sampa in comforting mood as she implores the listener to stay strong even at their lowest ebb. It concludes with a spoken word answerphone message that suggests that she has finally worked her way to a better understanding of who she is and where she comes from.

As the drifts to its conclusion with the summery soul of "Made Us Better", Sampa relays the lessons she has learned along the way. In the end, the struggle was worth it. Also, you should never hold a grudge, and that, however dark life gets, there's always someone who can point you towards the light. The listener is left with the suggestion that she has finally fit all the pieces in the right place and can now see the bigger picture.

The Return is both a willfully enigmatic and deeply revealing album. Sampa veers from moments of profound vulnerability to unwavering self-confidence as she details the battles she has won and lost. Musically, it is an often breathtaking listen as she straddles various genres with consummate ease. It serves as a dazzling celebration of her cultural and musical heritage that will resonate for years to come.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.

Television

Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.

Music

LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.

Books

'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.

Music

Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.

Music

Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.

Music

Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.

Music

Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.

Music

Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.

Music

DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.

Music

The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.

Music

Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.