When the three-song suite HERoes ACT 2 from Australian rapper Sampa the Great her landed in my inbox, I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. The unconventional origin of Sampa Tempo caught me off-guard. First of all, rappers from Australia haven’t had the greatest track record in the States, but it took exactly four bars of her verse on “Paved With Gold” to change my mind and make me a fan of Zambian-born, Mos Def-inspired, diminutive lyrical powerhouse from Sydney. You’d think Sampa would get tired of people underestimating her, but instead, she just keeps grinding.
Sampa’s lyrics stand strong even without accompaniment, as she demonstrates in a brand new freestyle, that we’re premiering above. She flexes the multisyllabic rhyme patterns in the stream of consciousness sprawl that she will soon become known for, with incisive bars that convey both self-assurance and self-consciousness. Sampa’s performance in the video proves her to be every bit as dynamic in person as in her pen game. She is captivating and charismatic as she vents and unspools her serpentine flow, expressing confidence that “life will turn out as it’s meant.”
In her bio, Sampa relates the experience that set her on the path to becoming an intriguing, inspiring new voice in the rap game. After asking a group of boys at her primary school if she could join their rap group for the talent show, she was met with that devastating, dreaded response that meets far too many girls who want to participate in “masculine” activities like rap: “You can’t rap with us, because you’re a girl.”
Well, now the joke’s on them. Taking in the words and rebel spirit of Lauryn Hill, a kindred soul in the typically male-dominated arena of hip-hop, Sampa dedicated herself to becoming not just a great female rapper, but a great rapper period. Where many aspiring emcees — male, female, and other — are entirely too comfortable with learning the basics and just coasting on charisma, it’s easy to hear the time, dedication, and effort Sampa has put into not just drilling the fundamentals of rap, but truly mastering the craft. Her hard work has led her to a deal with Red Bull Sound Select and that three-song EP, HERoes, Part 2 in collaboration with producer Rakhi and star British singer/rapper Estelle.
Her flow stutter-steps over the skittering beat of lead single, “Everybody’s Hero,” weaving through complex, cerebral patterns that demand repeat listenings and decoding on Genius. Producer Rakhi provides an echoing, haunting soundscape for Sampa’s scratchy, mellow vocals to inhabit and explore; not content to simply attack the rattling hi-hats, her voice searches the nooks and crannies of the track like Red Riding Hood in a placid forest at twilight. It sounds like wind in the trees, in the best way.
Estelle is the bigger name and thus plays the mentor role for the 23 year-old Sampa, but smartly lays back in the cut, letting Sampa stand front and center on each record. The English singer in probably best known as the bouncy chick who made “American Boy” with Kanye West, but here she is whisper quiet, using her husky voice to embellish Rakhi’s production, taking the place customarily occupied by soulful samples. The effect is chilly; it would sound perfectly in place in a darkened, smoky lounge with a glass of mezcal, letting Sam’s intricate rhythmic patterns tickle your gray matter.
The highest compliment that could be paid to any artist (short of dropping ducats) is sustained interest. To that end, not only did I find myself running back “Paved With Gold” for the rest of the night after my initial listen, I made the additional effort to search out more. Her debut project, The Great Mixtape does not disappoint in any respect, and I find myself looking forward to more from the afroed wiz kid from Down Under. Sampa the Great is well on her way to living up to her name, and put Australia’s burgeoning underground hip-hop scene on the map.