Impressive second album from Sampa Tembo sees her incorporate Zambian influences and more to deliver a statement of intent
Much has changed in the three years since Sampa The Great’s hotly received debut album. That record’s title, The Return, proved strangely prophetic, for soon after its release Sampa – real name Sampa Tembo – was heading back to her birthplace of Zambia in the face of the pandemic.
The shift clearly affected her music, but in a good way. As Above, So Below proves a worthy companion to its predecessor, building on the promise of The Return, gently reining in its excesses, and including stronger elements of Zambia itself. There is spoken word in Bemba, while many of the tracks are infused with the sound of Zamrock.
As a vocalist, Sampa has moved on a great deal in the last three years, developing her palette most impressively. We hear the distinctive sharp tones from 2019 but now they are placed in the context of a much wider range of vocal colours and inflections. She is a more controlled presence this time around, less inclined to go off at an instinctive tangent, but also finding herself at ease with moments of reflection to balance the raw power.
Soulful influences also make themselves known as the record progresses. Lo Rain channels the spirit of Lauryn Hill’s Ex-Factor, the watertight rapping accompanied by floating piano and angelic backing vocals. Meanwhile IDGAF has more than a flavour of Lorde’s Royals, passed through a rhythmic process or two, the message of the track cleverly staggered across the beats. The title implies music of rebellion, but in reality Sampa uses IDGAF as a statement of fact.
There is some dazzling, virtuoso wordplay in Mask On, a compelling wordsmith drawing the listener closer to the music. Sharp tones and confidential asides alternate in the likes of Bona, while Lane, a strong utterance in the company of guests Powers Pleasant and Denzel Curry, finds her lying low in the range, the vocal cleverly intercepted by her fellow-vocalists. Never Forget is notable for its rich colours and vibrant rhythms, swaying into view before the multilayered chorus makes itself known.
This is one of the most notable examples of homegrown rhythms, along with Imposter Syndrome, where big room grooves and guest vocals from James Sakala combine to make a richly textured and powerfully rooted song, topped by Sampa’s trademark twang.
Each listen to this record reveals an extra layer, Sampa’s talents seemingly knowing no bounds. It is a mightily impressive second album, building on the promise of The Return and adding poise, deeper thought and a wholly appropriate choice of guest vocalists. Lyrically and stylistically our protagonist spreads her wings much further than before, making a statement of intent that confirms Sampa The Great is in this for the long haul. The sky really is the limit on this evidence.