Sampa The Great is a unique voice and talent. Over the past few years, the Zambian-born rapper has quickly become a critic darling with singles and mixtapes that have carved out a unique voice on the world we live in. Today, she has released her debut album The Return.
Though she was born in Zambia, she was raised in Botswana before coming to California to go to school at 18. She was met with full on racism here (Glendale) and soon left for Australia to continue her degree in a different climate. There she found both the welcoming side of Australia with its arts scene, but also understanding the harsh xenophobia and racism that exists as well.
“I learnt more about myself as an African through my travels outside of Africa than in Africa,” she tells NPR.
The Return touches on a variety of topics over its 19 tracks, but the themes of diaspora and living as an African in different cultures remain the common thread throughout the record. We come to see an increasing pride and ownership of the self in who she surrounded by a world that isn’t always so accepting. “My voice, my skin, my logo,” she raps with gusto on “Freedom.”
A sense of confidence grows on the album, like on “Grass Is Greener” where she repeats in the first verse the factual statement, “I’m boutta blow up." The triumphant song right after “Dare To Fly” shows the pride she has in her own talent, rap / scatting “I am who I am, return of the ancient reborn, same yet I still will transform, purest the darkest and on,” over some slick funk guitar. The pride and confidence comes to the fore on the aptly titled “Final Form,” where she raps “but understand your favorite rapper peep my GOAT potential,” before finishing the verse with “only four years, fantastic, young veteran, new classic.”
She is not just proud of her accomplishments but also of her blackness and her womanhood, trying to wreck the white-dominated industry she works in. Even if many of the cultural faces are black, the suits and office executives are often white. “I’m too proud tho, too uppity, tryna fit in, too ruggedly, speaking loud noise, to disturb the peace, we don’t want no peace,” she raps over a smooth beat on “Any Day.” In the midst of this record, there are some bangers like the upbeat "OMG" with its flute floating over jacking drums.
The album slowly starts to wind down with the interlude “Give Love” before getting into experimental jazz and neo-soul over the last three records. There is even a hint of gospel as Sampa is joined by a quartet of artists to provide a soothing harmony on “The Return.”
This feels like a record Kendrick Lamar would regret missing out on providing a verse. If there is one act who you should expect to be on festival lineups next year, it is Sampa The Great.
The record blends together elements of soul, funk and hip-hop to help guide her message. It isn’t just verse, chorus, verse, chorus with a feature. Songs will switch up tempos and sounds in them, while the last part of the album dives heavily into some experimental psychedelic jazz. This is an album that will probably find its way onto end of year lists. It is a fascinating listen that illuminates new features after each successive listen.