Review of Lahai by Sampha: Turning an existential crisis into a sublime experience.


In the year 2017, Sampha Sisay debuted his album Process. This album was a poignant and at times difficult reflection on his mother’s passing, but it was also highly praised and reached the Top 10 charts. It received high rankings in critics’ year-end lists and earned nominations at the Brit awards and Ivor Novellos, ultimately winning the prestigious Mercury prize. It seemed that an artist who had previously been more behind the scenes – though still contributing to major albums by Beyoncé, Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean – was now stepping into the spotlight.

However, Sisay once again stepped back into the background, despite receiving numerous high-profile requests on his mobile. He made a surprise appearance on Alicia Keys’ 2020 album Alicia, and received a Grammy nomination for his brief contribution on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr Morale and the Big Steppers. He even had a whole track, titled Sampha’s Plea, dedicated to him on Stormzy’s This Is What I Mean. This was a rare moment for Sisay to be in the spotlight, as he generally preferred to stay behind the scenes and not pursue center-stage success.

It is possible that there is a new album, Lahai, that is just as personal as the previous one. Based on the lyrics, it seems that Sisay’s life in the past six years has been mostly focused on being a father, which is mentioned throughout the album (“my daughter here, she’s heaven sent”). There also seems to have been an existential crisis, as he talks about “chronic trauma”, being pursued by demons, and facing threats to his life. This crisis may have also caused a period of writer’s block, as indicated by the line “the words I wanted to share / where did they go?”. It is clear that Sisay has also reflected on his professional life during this time, as he sings about being in a “grind” that could potentially lead to his downfall and equates “careerism” with a “pothole”.

Sampha: Lahai album art

Additionally, it appears that Sisay’s emotional turmoil has influenced the overall sound of the album. Despite the beautiful melodies he creates and the warm, understated quality of his voice – which effortlessly reaches a strained falsetto on the track Suspended – there is a sense of agitation present in the instrumentation. The rhythms often transform into skittering drum and bass, and even on slower tracks, the hi-hats take a prominent role, giving the beats a frenzied, chattering feel. On songs like Dancing Circles and Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream), the keyboard parts repeat insistently, reminiscent of minimalist compositions by Steve Reich. The backing vocals also play a significant role, interjecting suddenly or glitching in a way that can feel overwhelming and crowded, like a cluttered mind. This tension between the lovely melodies – such as the sighing Can’t Go Back and the lush soul of Suspended – and the presentation of the music is highly effective in drawing the listener into a narrative of uncertainty, anxiety, and distress.

Sisay’s difficulties appear to have been resolved with the help of therapy (“please express my inner turmoil, please clarify for me why,” he sings on What If You Hypnotise Me?) and, surprisingly, reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s extremely popular 1970 novella filled with pseudo-spiritual, post-hippy nonsense. In the story, a seagull contemplates the meaning of life and freedom, likely when it’s not busy harassing people on the beach for their french fries. Nevertheless, the two songs that were inspired by it are lovely. Spirit 2.0 (“just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull trying to reach the clouds”) perfectly captures the essence of the album – the melody is rich, but accompanied by a gradually intensifying guitar riff and a cool synthesizer sound that evolves into a jazzy drum and bass beat. The track titled Jonathan L Seagull features brooding piano chords that occasionally border on discordance, sandwiched between lush choral vocals and playful video game-like electronic sounds.

Bach’s book, which was once forgotten by society, has unexpectedly resurfaced as a self-help guide, and although it may be considered nonsense, it clearly provided assistance to Sampha. It is difficult not to feel happy about this. While Sisay could have focused solely on writing songs for others and making occasional appearances with his famous friends, he still chose to create an intriguing and impactful solo album like Lahai. This is definitely something to be celebrated.

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