Richard Bach’s popular 1970 allegorical novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull tells the story of a seagull cast out from his flock for daring to challenge their worldview by flying beyond the clouds. Along his solitary journey, he finds ways to channel his sense of isolation into self-actualization; he eventually ascends to another realm, one where ostracized gulls like himself soar across the sky in peace and serenity.
“Jonathan L. Seagull,” a standout track on singer, songwriter, and producer Sampha’s second album, the meditative Lahai, ponders the forces that keep us tethered to the reality of life on Earth. “Seasons grow and seasons die/How high can a bird ever fly?” he sings, as if to literally uplift the listener. The production becomes airy and buoyant as Sampha alternates between his usual rich tenor and a breathy, piercing falsetto.
There has always been something transcendent, almost spiritual about Sampha’s music, like listening to someone invent their own type of prayer. He name-checks our avian protagonist once more on “Spirit 2.0”, Lahai’s lead single and its crown jewel, where honey-toned synths and skittering drumbeats craft an ambiance halfway between Erykah Badu’s R&B mysticism and the pop experimentation of mid-career Björk. “Just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull/Try catch the clouds as I free fall,” he sings, until realizing that he is ripe for salvation: “Love gonna catch you/Spirit gonna catch you, yeah.” In comparison to the rest of the album, the production on “Spirit 2.0” is sparser, more intentional in its empty space, mirroring the resignation that comes before having to take a leap of faith.
Transcendental seabirds aside, it’s no wonder that Sampha relates to these themes of alienation, individuality, and transformation. His 2017 debut album, Process—which won him the Mercury Prize and made him an R&B powerhouse after years of collaborating with superstars like Kanye West, Drake, and Solange—was written and recorded in the wake of losing both his parents to cancer. On the other side of the type of world-shattering grief encapsulated in Process songs like “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” lies an emotional expansion, a psychological release when those heavy emotions finally give way to something new; Lahai celebrates that transition.
Another major factor between Process and Lahai is the birth of Sampha’s daughter in the spring of 2020. The newfound optimism deftly woven into this record clearly comes from an artist who has recently and suddenly shifted their perspective on life and love. “Can’t Go Back” is built upon a hypnotic loop of Sampha singing the song’s title, punctuating driving breakbeats that push the track into quasi-IDM territory. Amid the pulsing beat, Sampha is aware that his daughter is “heaven-sent,” and that whatever the circumstance, he now has no choice but to move forward, never looking behind him.
While both Sampha’s lyrical style and vocal prowess are exceptional, it’s really as a producer where he is able to express the full breadth of his talent. Lahai is jam-packed with ideas: whether it’s the way he continuously layers his vocals to create texture through harmony, or how he’s able to slightly bend pianos and guitars around complicated beats until they sound warped, warm, and welcoming; every track has dozens of little nooks and crannies itching to be explored. If anything, if the record has a fault, it’s that sometimes the non-stop restlessness can distract from the subtler aspects of the songwriting, but generally, Sampha is able to deploy the intricacies of his production style to great effect.
Thematically dense, but never heavy, Lahai is peppered with references to flying, the sky, and lightness: the album art features Sampha against a background of a blue sky dotted with clouds, staring at the camera as if looking down from the heavens; in the video for “Only”, the second single and probably the most pop-influenced moment on the record, Sampha grabs a handful of air before it transforms into a songbird in his fist. On “Suspended”, he floats joyously through his life as a new father, as he croons “I am lifted by her love/I am lifted from above.” If Process was the act of wading through the muck of healing, Lahai is the cleansing shower that comes when it’s finally time to wash all the dirt off, shedding layer after layer until all that’s left is air.
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