Sampha’s highly anticipated second album LAHAI starts how all the best projects do: “I was just dealing with a few things” he offers plainly. It’s a statement that only hints at LAHAI’s immeasurable scope and ambition. If Sampha’s debut Process was the sound of an artist figuring out his own place in the world, engulfed in the shadows of grief and loss, LAHAI opens to new life and lives in awe of what the future holds.
LAHAI is an album that searches for what Sampha terms “beyond-ness”, time travelling through generations of people, sounds and places, exploring the multitude of ways we as humans try to connect to each other, and to something bigger than us. From the very first notes on album opener “Stereo Colour Cloud (shaman’s dream)”, as high-pitched keys twinkle in a frenzied loop and broken lyrics flicker in the breaks between, it captures a snapshot of the exquisite kind of chaos that one experiences confronting the cycle of life. When the punchy breakbeat cracks the track open after a few bars, Sampha hopes, “I think we found ourselves a sacred place, a place to dream out loud.” Adding in person, “sometimes it’s necessary to be able to dream, to connect to different realms, as a method of survival or of finding the fuel.”
Much like our dreams, LAHAI defies clear categorisation – both captivatingly vivid and blurred at once, almost impressionist in nature. Spanning jazz, soul, rap, dance, jungle, and west African music, LAHAI captures the expanse of Sampha’s ever-versatile musical inspirations. Taken from his paternal grandfather’s name, which is also Sampha’s middle name, LAHAI revels in the awe and magic of our existence, examining time, science, family, love, and spirituality. It’s no wonder that throughout LAHAI there are sparkling glints of sci-fi, afrofuturism and magical realism that seamlessly coalesce, transporting the listener into the supernatural world.
As Sampha always does, he began writing the lyrics and music for LAHAI in solitude, mining inspiration from books and documentaries including Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than The Sun, spiritual fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull and physicist Brian Cox. As his mind expanded, so did his vision for the project, and LAHAI began to formally take shape around a series of jam sessions. Sampha is no stranger to collaboration and LAHAI is no exception. As the inimitable voice called upon by some of the greatest artists of our time – from Kendrick Lamar to Stormzy, Drake to Solange, Frank Ocean to Alicia Keys – here he created space for newer voices, with everyone from Yaejj to Morgan Simpson (of Black Midi) to Yussef Dayes, Fabiana Palladino, Mansur Brown and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz (of Ibeyi) bringing their own textures and languages to the table. Wanting to stretch his producer chops as much as his vocal ones, he explains, “in terms of production and experimentation, this is the most adventurous I’ve been.” Gliding effortlessly through sonic boundaries alongside occasional co-producer El Guincho, seamlessly patchworking a wealth of influences together and littered with ideas, questions and feelings, there’s so much detail within it to grab onto.
The titles of the 14 tracks on LAHAI hint at the album’s ruminations on spirits, suspension, and flight; nature as an innate technology; and the ways we as humans strive to connect to something bigger than us. On the album track “Jonathan L. Seagull” Sampha recalls how his older brother Sanie used to read him the story of the seagull obsessed with perfecting the art of flying, who through the belief in and search for higher meaning, reached transcendence. He expands, “that book left a strong imprint on my brain… There’s a big theme of birds, flying, and migration. The song titled “Inclination Compass” is something I also learned from birds, the mechanism of how they always know where to go.”
“Inclination Compass” sees him calmly reunited with his trustiest companion, the piano. It’s followed by “Only”, which finds him newly energised, as he spits melodically over a fragmented hip-hop-hued beat. At other points, he’s bolstered by string sections, brass notes, choirs and a consistent overlay of metallic, futuristic folk embellishments. “I definitely feel a connection to West African folk music, especially Wassoulou, and that’s had a natural influence on me. Those types of syncopated, pointy rhythms, which then fly through to the US and blues, which leads to funk, and then there’s my connection to funk breaks,” he laughs. “Then from breaks into jungle, it’s this cyclical thing that all somehow gravitates towards the continent.” Amongst his notable inspirations during the recording process, there’s everyone from improvisational heavyweights in Oumou Sangare, Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane to Stevie Wonder, Steve Reich, Kendrick Lamar and jazz newcomer Nala Sinephro.
Notable on LAHAI is the presence of women and Sampha’s adoration of the matriarchy. On Process we meet a son mourning the loss of his mother whilst navigating the next important relationship in his life, the one with his partner and future mother of his first child. On LAHAI we meet Sampha as a father and companion, contemplating metempsychosis between his mother and daughter. LAHAI is scattered with a stellar line up of vocal contributions by women too, namely Yaeji, Léa Sen, Sheila Maurice Grey (Kokoroko) and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz. “I’ve been very supported by a lot of women in my life, this album feels an expression of my thankfulness. It was all very intuitive the way it came together.”
LAHAI also reflects Sampha’s consciousness of his family’s intergenerational legacy – his father’s upbringing in Kamabai, Sierra Leone (documented in Khalil Joseph’s short film Process), the family’s journey to and Sampha’s birth and life in the UK, now with a young daughter two generations removed from the continent. Sampha’s own concept of time has expanded significantly with his venture into fatherhood over the last few years too. “Now I don’t think so much of life as how old am I gonna be but more in terms of how much more of her life am I going to see,” he says. “But sometimes to have that feeling of being present is rooted in having knowledge of the past too.” And that invisible thread between past, present and even future manifests as he watches his daughter grow even more, a comfort that he savours. “Sometimes [her] energy is just so much like my mum, it’s strange. It’s just a nice feeling to think even if I haven’t got some [direct] connection to my mum, she’s connected here and there’s this thread that’s carried on.”
“Satellite Business” is a celestial-sounding interlude where Sampha meditates on the comfort of these moments as he chants, ‘through the eyes of my child, I can see you in my vision’ and ‘Thinking maybe there’s no ends, maybe just infinity, maybe no beginnings, maybe just bridges.’ On “Evidence”, he puts it even more simply. ‘Without the evidence, you’re the evidence, you’re enough evidence for me.’ If Sampha is the magical scientist of LAHAI – asking all the biggest questions of the world around him, grappling with the pain and joy of existence all at once, asking the what if’s and why – then through his modern, abstract folktales, his family and a radical acceptance, his findings show that the beauty lies in the search itself.
“Something I noticed in retrospect is that I was playing with the idea of someone in different stages of grief: denial, wanting to go back to how things were, acceptance of the way things are, methods in how to move forward, my relationship to spirituality. The fact that gaining a life also reminds me of the ones that have passed through that stage, and also about my own place in-between and intrinsically linked to both [new life and lives that have passed], is a blessing to be able to contemplate.”