Sampha Sisay is stressing over a thing called time. The London-based singer-songwriter spends much of Lahai, his first album in nearly seven years, trying to catch up with it, keep track of it, go back in it – it flies by, and he gets lost in his own world, and it seems like everyone is moving at a different pace. On ‘Jonathan L. Seagull (JLS)’, named after Richard Bach’s 1970 novella about a bird’s pursuit of perfect flight, a choir joins him singing, “Seasons come and seasons cry/ Seasons grow and seasons die,” before he admits, “We’ve both dealt with loss and grief in separate ways/ On the same track running.” It’s safe to say that for Sampha, it was largely through the making of his Mercury Prize-winning debut album, 2017’s Process, which came out in the aftermath of his mother’s death, pairing gorgeously textured arrangements with soul-baring lyricism. Bach is also referenced on the single ‘Spirit 2.0’, which starts out luscious and fluttering until Sampha cracks it open, enraptured by a sense of total freedom and peace. He’s on a free-fall, drifting out of time, because he knows the wings of his people are there to catch him.
Those people are all over Lahai. For years, Sampha was known primarily as a collaborator, lending his voice to tracks by the likes of Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean, so it makes sense that he threads his musical community throughout his second album, enlisting Yaeji, Ibeyi, black midi’s Morgan Simpson, Yussef Dayes, Laura Groves, El Guincho, and Kwake Bass, among others. But it also suits the artist’s thematic and emotional preoccupations. Although Process was both deeply meditative and sonically kinetic, its follow-up homes in on those qualities while being more outwardly concerned with his connection with the ones around him, a connection he describes as art. And like his chosen medium, it’s one he’s intent on perfecting: ‘Dancing Circles’ beautifully contrasts the maddening London traffic with the pure, conversational intimacy of dancing with someone, unburdened by the rush of thoughts that normally flood Sampha’s lyrics. The language he uses to communicate catharsis is particularly potent: “spinning out the stress,” “sinking in how you feel,” “swimming in how we feel.” The song is framed as a story of separation (“We were two birds flying away from each other”), but it posits dancing as a form of time travel, of flipping through shared memories.
On the following track, ‘Suspended’, though, anxiety punctures through this feeling of floating in and out of euphoria: Sampha may be trying to sink in recollections of love, but the space around it is claustrophobic; his piano tightens like a knot in the throat, Bass’ drums jitter, and even his voice gets fractured when the pressure gets to him, like flicking out of reality, or flying too close to the sun. Sampha’s work has been defined by its understated warmth, which still permeates Lahai, but the instrumentation is way more crowded, the stylistic shifts more pronounced, and the melodies more insistent even if they don’t share the immediate appeal of songs like ‘Blood on Me’ or ‘No One Knows Me Like the Piano’. In that way, it feels both more esoteric and extroverted, yet no less vivid or affecting.
The gentler songs may not be the ones that stand out on the album, but they ground it, shifting the weight away from ambition and towards self-awareness. “How about we fly towards the source again/ Let’s switch from cold to warm again,” he offers on ‘Inclination Compass (Tenderness)’, following a heated exchange. On ‘Evidence’, he apologizes for his tendency to “get lost in reflection” but does the opposite by focusing on a loved one – perhaps his daughter, whom he calls “heaven sent” on the previous track – as proof of divine beauty, a reason to have faith. In the end, it’s never one person that lifts him up, but an entire family. They appear in flashes, so Sampha feels the need to zoom in and capture them in a moment of unity, which he manifests on the closer, ‘Rose Tint’. “It’s been a lifetime,” he sings, underscoring his absence, separating the syllables. But just as they seem to be spinning out of control, towards different edges – life, time, life, time – Sampha stops himself and falls into perspective. “Everybody gather ’round/ Gonna take this picture now.”