In the vast global array of rap stars shining beyond the mainstream, Sampa The Great is a particularly luminous presence. Over the course of seven years, the 29-year-old has evolved in front of our eyes from an ambitious up-and-comer to an acclaimed two-time Australian Music Prize winner. The Zambia-born, Botswana-raised, former Australian resident’s second studio album ‘As Above, So Below’ compels with powerful lyricism, exciting sounds and a free spirit.
Being the proud African woman she is, Sampa Tembo has for years integrated and celebrated the cultural legacies and musical sounds of her heritage in her music. A huge inspiration on ‘As Above, So Below’ is Zamrock, the heady fusion of psychedelic rock, reggae, soul and traditional music that Zambian musicians pioneered in the ’70s. Sampa aims for a similarly hybrid sound on this record, amalgamating sounds and styles all over the record.
‘Never Forget’ is the most Afro-centric track on the album, boasting a jumpy bassline that creeps into your chest, enticing you to dance. With the help of her sister, Mwanjé, and cousin Tio Nason’s fluttery vocals, and Zambian rapper Chef 187, she pays homage to her home of Zambia, a birthplace she’s recently reconnected with. A highlight is the uplifting lyrical gems in Chef 187’s verse, such as “Konse twanyanta, umushili we mark”, a line in Bemba which translates to “We leave footprints on every piece of earth we tread upon”.
Over the years, Sampa has become a respected and beloved frontrunner in Australia’s hip-hop scene while speaking her mind on things like gender equality, racial injustice and more. It has not been the easiest journey, as she told us in a cover story earlier this year, but she’s since entered an elevated phase as a figure Eve. “Now we’re in Eve Mode,” she told us. “It’s just parts of myself, framed around my womanhood, that needed time to grow and come to. I’m fully in my Eve power now”.
And on ‘Can I Live’, with the help of iconic ‘70s Zamrock band W.I.T.C.H, Sampa hits her stride. The track opens with the poignant titular line “Can I… live?”, Sampa demanding stereotypes of womanhood be lifted off her over a dark instrumental. And on the closer ‘Let Me Be Great’, already-great five-time Grammy-winning icon Angeliqué Kidjo supplies a rousing hook as Sampa pens verses that invoke self-actualisation: “You can never fail / Even when you are, you prevail”.
Sampa’s confidence on ‘As Above, So Below’ is infectious. On the lead single, ‘Lane’ featuring Floridan rap star Denzel Curry, she dominates the mellow instrumental with her cockiest bar on the album: “I ain’t give a shit, go suck a pussy / You can keep your clique and I keep my stussy”. Then, Denzel bulldozes through with exuberance. Together, they do the perfect balancing act for this braggadocious, confidence-boosting track.
But it’s ‘IDGAF’, featuring east London’s Kojey Radical, that feels like the perfect embodiment of Sampa as Eve. They tell a true tale of self-assurance, Sampa leaving us with reminders to keep “Running from the negativity, I throw it out / Even when they’re shuttin’, you know, I’mma shut ’em down / They be all up in yo’ face, tryna put ya down / Even when you are the reason they life turned around”. It’s hard not to feel your own worries melt away when you hear Sampa’s self-confidence on maximum.
Ultimately, ‘As Above, So Below’ shows that the risks Sampa the Great has taken have paid off. The record is a heartfelt, honest homage to a country and continent, created by a powerful, unapologetic artist. This intelligent, harmonious and compelling album shows just how much Sampa The Great has grown over her years in the limelight.
Release date: September 9
Record label: Loma Vista Recordings