A Piece by T-Rod
Everyone can remember the moment that a certain song hit them differently. I’ll always remember my first time hearing the villainous piano loops of “All Caps” with my older brother in the car, the first time I heard “Style” while going out and realizing how genius Taylor Swift was as a pop songwriter…everyone has those moments that stick with them as long as the music stays in rotation.
The last time I felt this feeling was hearing “Dancing Circles” as I walked to get groceries in New York. There’s a strange loneliness that haunts Sampha’s songwriting that I resonated with, a rush of disconnected memories that reminds him of a lost love…and yet there’s a peace of mind that the song contains. It has a matured worldview that looks back and moves forward at the same time. This nostalgic sadness and optimistic worldview is the ethos of Sampha’s new record Lahai, and it represents what I think music can truly do: speak to your soul.
It took Sampha 6 years to follow up his previous record Process, and outside of a few rare features he’s been in hiding, honing his craft. That time off bore fruit: Lahai is easily one of my favorite records of the year from its sound alone. It’s very quiet, but its instrumentals (all touched by Sampha himself) are a mix of soulful piano and twittering electronics that are designed for your ears and minds to latch onto. The mix of real and artificial across the album builds this texture of somber warmness, with minimal pianos and synths building up to triumphant beat changes (see “Only”). Opener “Stereo Color Cloud” is almost club-like with its glitchy drums and breakdowns, but Sampha’s rumination on time lends it this human rawness that hits. “Jonathan L. Seagull” has a fantastic progression from a looping synth to a harmonized chorus, to another main melody, to a sweet soul breakdown on percussion. It’s a sick song already, but when Sampha compares human connection to the seasons? Godly stuff. This record loves to make its songs transform and blossom from start to finish.
Speaking on the pen that Sampha flexes, all I can say is that he’s a master of double duty songwriting. What I mean by that is as a technical songwriter, he’s excellent at making phrases and refrains stick within you, associated melodies and all. “Spirit 2.0” is a masterclass in catchiness, but it also delivers that spiritual peace in lyrics he out. On Lahai’s less catchy moments, that other component of songwriting, emotion, is spectacular. “What If You Hypnotize Me?” is a powerful look at Sampha’s psyche, framed from the perspective of hypnotherapy. My interpretation may be incorrect, but I think that perspective genuinely makes this song hit even harder as a listener, especially as Lea Sen’s vocals come through on the back half. Even when songs end up more cutesy and less introspective like on the family ode of “Evidence”, Sampha is great at making his words resonate with you on a human level. The record feels like a conversation, with Sampha acting as an open book.
I brought up the anecdote of hearing “Dancing Circles” earlier in this review because in all seriousness, I do think this is the album for a music fan to feel things they haven’t felt in a while. Love, sadness, joy, fear…Sampha brings all of them in a format that syncs up with both his instrumentals and your own heartbeat. It’s one of my favorite records in 2023, and I think you would greatly enjoy it as a stranger or a fan of Sampha.
Tracks to Save: Damn, all of them!
If you like this album, give it a listen on streaming or purchase it on Bandcamp!