Sampha’s sophomore album “Lahai” offers a transcendent musical experience, and while it may not be thematically consistent, it is a praiseworthy blend of R&B and soul. Released on Oct. 20, the album follows the R&B singer’s critically acclaimed “Process” (2017). Despite his short discography, Sampha began releasing music in 2010.
Born in London to Sierra-Leonian parents, the singer titled the album after his middle name, hinting at the themes of introspection within the project. His smooth vocals and dreamy production create an ethereal, nostalgic experience throughout the album’s 14 songs and 41-minute runtime.
“Lahai” invites the listener to drift off into a comfortable haze. While initially pleasant, the similarity between songs causes the album to fade into the background at times. Pace change, interludes and different instrumentation do provide a semblance of variety within the project, but ultimately Sampha fails to give each song a distinct sound of its own. Furthermore, the lyrics are nearly lifeless. While Sampha approaches themes of regret, relationships and ambition, he settles for abstraction rather than pursuing these thematic elements on a more personal level.
Sampha devotes most of his attention toward abstract ideas, using vague phrases such as “recollecting moments” and “chronic trauma discovering” without taking the time to delve into the meaning or history behind the words. He makes almost no attempt to create specific images for the listener, seemingly relying on his production and the album’s overall sound quality to conjure them for him.
“Lahai” contains genuinely intriguing ideas related to self-realization, change and a search for purpose, and these themes could have proved profound if fleshed out. While the meaning behind his words may fall flat, Sampha does an excellent job of manipulating lyrics to provide cohesion in each song’s sonic texture. Through changes of pace, tone and emphasis, Sampha manages to create memorable lyrical moments despite an absence of relatable sentiment. For example, quirky syllable stresses in “Only” and rhythmic repetition of the title in “Can’t Go Back” supply an interesting lyrical quality.
Although the album’s lyrics lack specificity, Sampha’s vocals are earnest enough to provide some meaning to otherwise bland words. His vocal ability shines throughout “Lahai,” and Sampha does an excellent job varying his sonic execution. On some songs, he delivers quick, consecutive clusters of verse that build strong rhythm, while on more mellow tracks, he allows the depth of his voice to shine. On “Spirit 2.0,” string instruments softly mimic Sampha’s inspired vocal performance, while on “Dancing Circles,” somber piano chords deepen his quickened delivery.
Sampha opts for clean and atmospheric production that complements, rather than directs, his own performances. He relies heavily on staccato rhythms and bouncy electronic beats, which texture his gentle vocal performances with sprightly energy. Throughout “Lahai,” Sampha maintains a lively-yet-thoughtful sound that pairs well with his lyrics’ optimistic nostalgia. The instrumentals are simple but tasteful, highlighting Sampha’s voice and imbuing the project with a peaceful, eclectic style.
“Jonathan L. Seagull” is a standout track on “Lahai.” Titled after a novella written by author Richard Bach in 1970, Sampha reflects on a previous relationship that still affects him deeply. This is the closest the album comes to crafting specific, meaningful imagery, as Sampha laments the alternate paths he and his ex-partner have taken after sharing profound experiences together, asking the listener, “How high can a bird ever fly?”
Though at times, “Lahai” feels formulaic — the imagery, instrumentals and vocals become repetitive — Sampha manages to construct a blissful and compelling project that highlights his strengths. Invigorating production that is almost perfectly fitted to Sampha’s voice provides enough color to disguise the flat lyricism and underwhelming variety that plague the project. “Lahai,” while far from groundbreaking, is a consistent, sonically impressive album that does just enough to keep the listener engaged.