Sunday Music: Sampha’s “Lahai” And Tiny Desk Concert

My wife and I were catching up on the last month (or three’s) of Tiny Desk Concerts last weekend. Sampha’s came on. He’s been on my radar a long time but apart from his guest spots with Kendrick and a few tracks off the last album, I haven’t caught the same bug that’s caught so many critics. 

Until we watched his Tiny Desk. I get it now. Beyond the Bob’s Burger’s mustache and updated drum & bass vibes. Beyond the “oh cool, Kendrick featured him” bonus points. I am/we are all in on Sampha. 

Tiny Desks are a great introducer like that. 3ish songs. Stripped-down performance, usually acoustic. A perfect musical infomercial. What a way to check in to see if I you should declare, “but wait, is there more?”  

You’ll want to watch for yourself – link below – but my listening has gotten stuck on his 2023 release, Lahai

It’s a vibe – so I understand if you can’t just fall into it. But, while the last album (2017’s Process) dealt with familial grief, specifically in mourning the loss of a parent while your own life is theoretically getting better, Lahai feels more liberated to me. He’s become a parent himself in between the albums. His perspective is growing with his experience, and I really believe you can hear it. 

The expression is unique too. You’ll recognize the sources – the electronic dance, and jazz, and R&B, but the approach to composition is full (FULL) of surprises. It’s somewhere between a jazzier Maggie Rogers and a more spiritual Pharell. There’s nobody quite like him. 

I want to point specifically at “Can’t Go Back.” It’s all in this song. All of his skills, all of the natural elements that he brings to his craft are on display here. 

It’s a song about gaps. Think space. Think distance. And it’s a song about progress. Think progression. Think from and to. All together, it’s a song about personal evolution. 

A snip of the lyrics from the first part of the song. It’s helpful to read them. You’ll already start to get a sense of the layers, each with their gaps, each relative to the others. 

Can’t go back (time)
Can’t go back (flies)
Can’t go back (life)
Can’t go back
Don’t care if my mind keeps saying
Can’t go back
Don’t care if my heart keeps saying
Can’t go back
Don’t care if my brain keeps saying
Can’t go back
And I don’t care if my veins keep saying
Can’t go back

When there’s something pulling (can’t go back)
Can’t go back
Yeah (can’t go back)
Mm (can’t go back)
But then it all gets frozen (can’t go back)

Une machine à remonter le temps

That last line is the French title of The Time Machine: An Invention by H.G. Wells. I’m calling it out because if I had to look it up you might need to too. It’s a beautiful Easter egg. 

When you play the song, you’re immediately aware of the differences in quality between the layers of vocals as they’re presented. This is all on purpose. Notice the sounds. Notice the pacing. Notice what speeds up and slows down relative to what else (the drum pickup is most noticeable at the top, just to highlight an obvious one). 

This isn’t just poetic lyrics and musical melodies – Sampha’s giving us a physics lesson. Relativity. Gravity. It’s all here. Aching forward because nothing goes backwards. 

Entropy and uncertainty won’t yield to you either. Kurt Vonnegut meets Sly Stone. H.G. Wells meets Orson Welles meets Ronson & Wale.  

If any of this catches you, watch the “Can’t Go Back” video and especially check out the Tiny Desk concert. 

One more cool detail – the drums/interpretation of the final cut on the Tiny Desk Concert  (which his only “old” song in the performance. “Without”) is downright magical. Show it to your kids, or even just kids you know. It will inspire them. Cheat ahead to 14:20ish if you can’t wait. It is mesmerizing to watch the band circle up and play the song this way. 

Nobody else is doing this. New music. Nothing like it.