Sampa the Great’s “The Return” Signals a Force Has Arrived

Sampa the Great’s “The Return” Signals a Force Has Arrived

Sampa the Great’s latest album, The Return, is an impressive feat. After years of crossing the globe, writing music, and building formative friendships, the songwriter/rapper/poet lays down her own personal manifesto by fusing jazz, hip-hop, and soul into a style uniquely her own.

Even just looking at its running time, The Return is ambitious—with 19 songs, the album clocks in at 1 hour 17 minutes. These days, it’s common to see musicians paring down their albums to 30 minute collections of songs. But Sampa isn’t playing by the rules.

The Melbourne-based songwriter/rapper/poet delivers a confident, expansive, and joyous album inThe Return. The album draws on Sampa’s experiences growing up across the globe and pays homage to the people who helped her find her voice. After 2015’s The Great Mixtape and 2017’s Birds and the BEE9, Sampa has finally stepped into her own as an artist: one who isn’t afraid to call out injustices, champion her friends, and embrace her winding past.

The Return is Sampa the Great’s most self-assured album to date. She was born in Zambia and spent her childhood in Botswana. At the age of 19, she moved to San Francisco to attend art school, and a few years later relocated to Australia, where she is currently based. A life constantly on the move left Sampa without a clear sense of identity or home. But on The Return, she honors her traveled past with a myriad of musical influences from funk to jazz to soul and creates a style that’s uniquely hers.

Sampa The Great - OMG (Official Video)

The music video for “OMG,” directed by Sanjay De Silva, was filmed in South Africa and Botswana. “To me ‘OMG’ sounds like the songs we heard in our childhood. It’s broadly about flexing your culture!” Sampa told Pitchfork about the song, which layers the syncopated drums of Southern Africa with Sampa’s percussive rapping. 

On The Return, Sampa also draws on the jazz and hip-hop influences that she discovered in formative Australian jam sessions. “Leading Us Home” begins with a bassline reminiscent of the Freddie Hubbard jazz standard “Red Clay” and utilizes modern jazz and neo-soul instrumentation with its use of a clean, reverb-laden electric guitar tone and group vocals that would fit in on a Kendrick Lamar track. When she arrived in Australia, a country she had no previous connections to, Sampa found community in jazz and hip-hop freestyle sessions, which both exposed her to a new range of influences and introduced her to musicians who would become her collaborators and friends.

Throughout The Return, Sampa celebrates these friendships that helped her find her place in the music industry. More than half of the album’s songs have collaborators, ranging from Zimbabwean singer thando to London jazz collective Steam Down. One of the first tracks, “Wake Up (Interlude)” is a voicemail from a concerned friend asking where Sampa has been. “I don’t even know where you are,” her friend says, her voice tired. I don’t think you have time for all this finding yourself spiritual shit. And I think you need to focus on the fact that you’re here and that we’re all here with you.” 

Sampa The Great - Time’s Up (feat. Krown) (Official Audio)

After the interlude, Sampa springs to life, launching into one of the album’s most gripping songs, “Time’s Up.” The song’s title refers to the movement against sexual assault founded in January 2018 in response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the rising #MeToo movement. The song features the South Sudan-born and Melbourne-based rapper Krown. “I seen the industry kill dreams of a dreamer,” Sampa and Krown attest in the song’s chorus. The song takes the organized anger of the Time’s Up movement and extends it to the mistreatment of black artists in the music industry. “How many times I inspired your rhymes then you redubbed it,” Sampa raps, calling out the appropriation of black artists’ work for the profit of white musicians. Sampa calls out these exploitative experiences and channels them into a focused rage. She doesn’t have time to play a flawed industry’s games, so she’s changing the rules. 

While Sampa’s first two releases acknowledged her past, they reflected a sense of resentment—a frustration with feeling caught between worlds, or not feeling truly at home in any country or in any one musical genre. With The Return, Sampa seems to have found a sense of joy in the multitudes of her identity. “Music is the source of all my end and my beginning,” Sampa raps on “Freedom.” Reflecting on her past, music has been the catalyst of Sampa’s pivotal life changes. It brought her across the world and back, and now is the backbeat to her personal manifesto.

Score: You return home after months without seeing your parents. They greet you with a warm smile as you set the dinner plates down on the table—you’ve cooked their favorite dish, but tinkered with some new twists you picked up from friends.