The term “World Music” is painful. A clumsy, outdated, catch-all phrase for artists that don’t fit into the Western ideal of pop.
It’s easy to see how Sampa The Great might have one become pegged into this slightly bizarre genre black hole. Her influences are vast. Her sphere is global. It would be wrong to put her in a box though. She’s far too good for that. ‘The Return’, her first studio album proper, challenges the very notion of “World Music”, shattering the tag into tiny pieces with over an hour’s worth of slick, genre hopping rap that spends as much time in the library as the dancefloor.
Slow jam ‘Freedom’ kicks things into gear early on. Sampa’s laidback, and utterly confident, delivery forces you to sit up and take note. It’s clear from this point that she is an artist at the very top of her game, and she knows it.
From this point, the album canters along nicely, never breaking a sweat to deliver its message. 'Time's Up' is West Coast G-Funk for the next generation, minus the casual misogyny. It’s Boogie Down Productions produced by Dr. Dre, but better. Much better.
While there are times Sampa The Great leans hard into hip-hop's history – ‘Time's Up’ and ‘Heaven’ In particular have a real 90’s skate shop vibe about them – on the whole this record is overwhelming about the future, not the past. The beats often break away from standard rap shtick, taking the listener beyond genre and into the unknown.
If there’s one potential criticism to be had with the record, it’s that there’s no huge moments. No runaway singles, no obvious “hits”. 'The Return' is an album full of album tracks. It’s an album that forces you to lean in and really listen. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. Not at all. If anything, the lack of real standout tracks makes for a much better, more mature record. There’s certainly no filler, Sampa makes sure of that. Every track has a purpose. Everything is intentional, from the click of a drum to the syllables in a line.
‘Dare To Fly’ and ‘The Return’ highlight Sampa’s tendency to break down genre with her eclectic beats. The former leans heavily on acid jazz rhythms to create a hallucinogenic-fuelled jam so messed up that Thundercat would be proud of.
Title track ‘The Return’, meanwhile, also gives more than a nod to Portishead. The track is a trip-hop infused echo chamber. Its reverb-laden anti-beat adds a distinctly sinister edge to the albums climax.
With 'The Return', Sampa The Great expertly dismantles the notion of genre, proving that, when it comes to art, what really matters is content, not labels.
Words: Jack Doherty
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