Album of the Week \\ Sampa the Great’s journey to the self stands out

12th September 2019

Four years after the release of ‘The Great Mixtape’, Sampa the Great drops her stirring debut album

Sampa the Great has been searching for herself. Now, with the release of her debut album ‘The Return’ on Ninja Tune, we can follow her journey. 

Like many artists whose fame and visibility rise, Sampa Tembo lets us in on her four year journey to her sense of self and her understanding of home. Globe-trotting was a normal part of Sampa’s life, even before touring became the norm; she was born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, studied in California, and now lives in Australia – a little disorientating for anyone’s sense of home. ‘The Return’, with an epic 19 tracks, is a comprehensive exploration of Sampa’s identity. 

Lyrically, Sampa continues to excel, following on from the eloquent wisdom of her 2017 mixtape, ‘Birds And The BEE9’, which won the Australian Music Prize Best Album. With ‘The Return’, Sampa’s lyrics – with their journal-like honesty – seem to reveal a deep therapy, for both artist and any focused listener. Pay attention to Sampa’s words and you’ll be rewarded. In the album’s title track, she ushers a revelation of disassociation and longing for the authentic self; 

Take me to my soul / Everything I know / I just want my spirit to wander off no more / Everything is here / Everything familiar / Everything I’ve seen and it’s everything I hear

For the casual listener though – let’s be frank, not everyone enables themselves the opportunity to listen without distraction – moments like interludes of old friends leaving Sampa ‘where are you’ voicemails gives you a clear sense of narrative to bookmark your reverie.  

Sampa has gathered an impeccable personnel that aptly represents her journey. Featured artists and producers are collated from the UK, the States and her country of residence, Australia. Continuing her affiliation with Jazz-not-Jazz artists, she draws in Silent-Jay, Blue Lab Beats, Clever Austin and also STEAM DOWN, who she developed a close-knit connection with after being taken to their weekly Deptford residency. 

Throughout ‘The Return’, there’s references to classic hip-hop, South African traditions and progressive Jazz. Sampa’s sample of The Sylvers’ ‘Stay Away from Me’ in ‘Final Form’ is incredibly revitalising. The woody shuffle of opening track ‘Mwana’, featuring Sunburnt Soul Choir and a suspected family member – the personnel namechecks Mwanje Tembo – beautifully underpins its words: ‘Been searching for what’s inside of me / physically displaced / And spiritually erased’. ‘Freedom’ draws on classic soul that would melt fans of NxWorries and Anderson .Paak, whilst single ‘OMG’ has python-precision (talking about ‘fans of’ comparisons, Little Simz followers should definitely check in with this one). 

‘The Return’ is a representation of journeys in both the spiritual and physical sense. Whilst its not the most original concept for a record, it’s one that’s done with incredible sincerity, making it stand out from other ‘finding-myself’ records by a long shot.

There are few artists that can articulate themselves in ways rarely heard before, but Sampa the Great – whose combination of flow, lyrics, stage presence and musical creativity – is up there with, well, the greatest. 

‘The Return’ is released 13 September via Ninja Tune

Sampa the Great plays XOYO on 20 November

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