Album Reviews

Sampha – Lahai

(Young) UK release date: 20 October 2023

Cerebral and enigmatic, the much-lauded Londoner takes us inside his buzzing mind for his second LP

Sampha - Lahai Winning a Mercury prize for one’s debut album is daunting achievement – some artists step into the spotlight (Dizzee Rascal, Arctic Monkeys) while some flounder (Klaxons). 2017’s Process owed much of its accomplishment, however, to the years Sampha spent building up his musical repertoire and industry connections. Since then he has been busying himself collaborating with artists like Stormzy and Kendrick Lamar. Now at long last he’s back with a second album that glitches and glimmers under his ruminations on life, fatherhood, interpersonal relationships.

Dancing Circles is an early highlight, as multiple layers of piano build up gradually: dissonant staccato plucks, smooth chord-stroking, angular melodic lines, eventually supplemented by dubby echo effects and joined by a blown-out drum machine loop. The lyrics are impressionistic, conflicted, settling into odd rhythmic grooves (“Time travels memories / we were two birds / flying away from each other / looking for each other”). Several spots on the record are unexpectedly jazzy, such as the chromatic bass guitar that noodles all over Jonathan L Seagull’s middle section and the slash chords of Evidence which aid the song’s contemplative tone.

In this intellectually heavy, somewhat abstract album it feels appropriate that the most hooky track contains some of his most face-value lyrics. Only dwells on emotions like hedonism and impulsivity, referencing both their allure and their destructive potential, over the type of lush, brassy beat that Chance The Rapper could have performed on a few years ago. But shortly after this comes the confusion of Can’t Go Back, an Escher-esque chord sequence over the uneasily brisk 4×4 beat, the lyric “can’t go back, you can move forward slower” repeated as if a mantra to reassure himself.

One clear difference between Lahai and Sampha’s previous record is the more intricate rhythms. Whether it’s the snare of Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream), which rolls, stutters and pitch-shifts in classic IDM style, or the digital shrapnel that bubbles up from time to time on closing track Rose Tint, it represents a welcome step into more experimental terrain and contrasts nicely with his mostly gentle croon. Suspended cuts up a live drum performance, flanged hi-hats fluttering through the track as Sampha delivers a very nice fake-out ending to his verse (“In another life we were two birds that soared / In another life I don’t know who you are / I’m a troubled mind, reality divorced / When you ask me if I love you I’m-“).

Birds recur as a motif, signifying ideas of freedom and volatility, and the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is name-dropped in reference to the titular character’s self-actualisation. By the end of Lahai Sampha seems to have found his place in the company of loved ones, a social gathering where he can forget his worries and introspective feelings, and if parts of the album feel like therapy (see What If You Hypnotise Me?) Evidence also suggests an entirely pleasant suppression of the self. A daughter (born in 2020) makes him see life in a different way and affects his decisions, a whole new task that he sees as more important than any other, and the song’s gentle nature teases out these themes artfully.

Less immediate than its predecessor, Lahai nonetheless has a cerebral, enigmatic quality that positions the listener inside our protagonist’s buzzing mind. On the production side it’s the sound of a technically proficient artist, someone who could do pretty much whatever he sets his mind to. Mainstream R&B fans may be baffled at various points, but there will be few more engrossing albums this year.

buy Sampha MP3s or CDs
Spotify Sampha on Spotify

More on Sampha
Sampha – Lahai
Sampha – Process