This behemoth rap record masterfully combines a whole range of genres into hip-hop, while retaining a firm worldview
Events, dear boy. That phrase is British prime minister Harold Macmillan’s most well-known saying, and maybe the most succinct way to describe what it is that changes the course a government may wish to chart. This week has been full of events, most of them very bad indeed. We appear to be living in the transition period between one era and another, and its deeply unnerving and unsettling, and while the scenes from the invasion of Ukraine are heart-breaking, in between the BBC News alerts and the endless scrolling through Twitter to see the latest developments, life continues. At least we have that luxury. Outside events have helped formed this site from its very inception. It would never have happened were it not for the lockdowns imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and it also formed our desire to avoid harsh and negative criticism of albums we did not like. There was enough negativity out there, we did not need to add to it. Now, we face a different situation, a situation where going about your normal activities seems pointless in the face of the immense suffering that is occurring. Pointless though it may be, life does go on (for now, anyway), and for the editors of this site, that means listening to albums and writing reviews. Zambian-born Australia-based rapper Sampa the Great’s debut album The Return is a magnificent record that helped distract me, at least for a while, from ongoing events, and in doing so, has helped remind me of the value of art in ugly times.
“It’s all well and good mixing pop and politics, but the emotional resonance and enjoyment have to be there, and Sampa the Great succeeds in that ambit too.”
It may seem like arrogance or cocksureness to take a stage name that ends in ‘the great’, but with The Return, Sampa Tembo more than earns that title. It is a rich and complex rap album that not only deals with hefty and important themes, but is chock-full of catchy tunes you’ll want to listen to over and over again. The political context of the album is made clear in the lyrics, but also in the interlude entitled Wake Up. The short track is composed of the contents of a voicemail message that speaks of the difficulties of being black and working in the music industry, and how it can take a lot out of a person. Institutional racism continues to be a theme throughout the album, particularly in the song Time’s Up, where Sampa raps the line “black face industry, lyin’, don’t invest in me/Only want the money off our backs like history”, a line which makes clear reference to the fact that over many decades the work of black musicians and artists was exploited and often stolen for the benefit of white record label owners. The song is deeply cynical towards the music industry, with a repeated refrain being “I’ve seen the industry kill dream of a dreamer”, effectively stating that the music industry is a monstrous machine that seeks nothing more than to exploit art for commercial value above all else. The tracks are ultimately optimistic as they reject the entrenched racism in which many black artists are forced to operate and they have hope that the future will be better. It may not surprise you to know that with this type of lyricism The Return was released independently.
That is just a part of the many themes that make up the album, and it is certainly a part of what makes it fascinating to return to for a close listen. It is densely packed with allusions and metaphor, which make it fun to go back to every time. Even when she leans into typical rap music swagger on songs like Grass Is Greener and OMG, there’s an empowerment to the self-hype, as it is always tied in to bigger issues like her African identity or her place as a female solo artist. However, as Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost recently said on the Films to Be Buried With podcast with Brett Goldstein, if one doesn’t provoke an emotional response in one’s art, whatever themes one may have included will fall flat. It’s all well and good mixing pop and politics, but the emotional resonance and enjoyment have to be there, and Sampa the Great succeeds in that ambit too. The album is pretty long, coming in at 77 minutes, but through the strength of its musicality it manages to keep you hooked from beginning to end. Many songs incorporate elements of 1960’s and 1970’s Motown, funk, and soul sounds, but it manages to avoid the overtly ‘retro’ feel that can feel derivative. Diamond in the Ruff is a good example of a catchy, memorable tune that evokes that era, but the backbeat and rhythm feel very modern. In addition, the inclusion of South African R&B singer Thando’s beautiful vocals again capture the feeling of soul music. Freedom begins in a manner reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s early 70’s output, and then Sampa’s rapping takes the song in a different direction that feels fresh. These are just two examples, but there are other tunes in the same vein, such as Final Form and Heaven, while Summer and Leading Us Home takes the album in a jazzier direction, and Mwana and OMG are firmly influenced by modern rap and afrobeats.
This broad mix of genres allows the album to widen its appeal – I think most people would be able to find at least one song they really love here, whether it’s the more soulful songs or the fast-paced modern rap tracks – but it also allows the album to flow as a piece. There seems to be lot of thought put into the placing of the tracks and the juxtapositions of tempos and styles, and it works to allow the whole piece a rhythm with which one can engage. What’s more is that it is a promising album. Sampa the Great has only released one album to date, and while it is excellent in its own right, it makes me excited to see how she will further refine and develop her sound in years to come. Listening to this album when I have been powerlessly watching the barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an interesting experience. It has served as a welcome distraction from the threats of nuclear Armageddon and World War Three. But more than that, it served as a reminder that art – whether it be music, film, books, painting or anything else you care to mention – is one of the things that makes life worth living. Oscar Wilde is known to have said “all art is quite useless”, and on a practical level he is right, but listening to a new album that’s as fresh and challenging and interesting as The Return allows the listener to not only be momentarily distracted, but inspired with hope too.