Every so often an important and distinctive new voice arrives in rap music, shifting the goalposts and planting a marker of intent. It is one of the quickest moving genres of music around, yet still seems to have so much more room for discovery.
Sampa The Great is one of those new kids on the block, and hers is most definitely a sound to check. With a rich heritage from Zambia, where she was born, Botswana, where she grew up, and Melbourne, where she now lives, she was never likely to make middle of the road music. So it proves on The Return, which does the exact opposite.
Sampa has a very distinctive voice, probing above, below or between the lines of the many guest vocalists to make herself heard. Sometimes the voice can be annoying – often intentionally – but other times it is softly sensitive. What she always has is something to say, and often her insights are fiercely relevant.
Not many debut albums trash the industry in which they sit, but the keenly felt Time’s Up goes for the jugular early on, holding music to account with mistakes past and present. “I’ve seen the industry kill the dreams of a dreamer”, she intones with feeling, calling out racism and sexism in the company of Krown. It is a scathing appraisal that tells us we have to do more.
Her voice narrows for the clipped beats of Light It Up, where Sampa confesses to “searching for herself” in a barely audible mumble, before urging “1-2-3, you’re gonna need to put your hands in the air”. This cuts to the fantastic, earthy groove of Final Form, where shrill brass and an urgent rap combine to thrilling effect. The track fades out in its prime, a curious move when the album has hit arguably its highest point.
When Sampa The Great is on her game the results are irresistible, her distinctive and powerful voice cutting through the grooves with precision. Leading Us Home is a great track with communal strength, while Summer is a tender, bittersweet moment to complement with Steam Down. Freedom takes a large slice of The Stylistics‘s You Are Everything to create an appealing blend, while Dare To Fly vividly depicts an effort to get airborne in its stop start beat. The distinctive shaping of the words in Any Day’s rapped verses and sung chorus is also striking, with soulful input from Whosane. “Don’t forget the hands that feed you” is the plea, another message towards the music industry.
The downside of The Return is its bloated structure, a weighty 77 minutes of music that while striking and often powerful is also overgenerous. There is also the occasional and perhaps inevitable tendency to self-promote, at the expense of more meaningful insights. The sheer weight of guests could have been a problem, were Sampa The Great’s vocal not so distinctive, effortlessly getting to the front of the mix.
Hers is a voice that will not be silenced, and when she brings in more local colour in tracks like OMG she resembles M.I.A. at her most vital. This is a talent to watch, The Return laying down an impressive statement of intent, a marker of Sampa The Great’s potential. This will surely grow with subsequent releases, and it is exciting to think of where she could go next.