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If Sampa The Great was a man, her new album As Above, So Below would already be in the conversation as one of the top five rap albums of the year. As it is, I have to be Thanos in this situation and do it myself; Sampa’s new album doesn’t just deserve to be considered one of the top five rap albums of 2022… it is.
In hip-hop, we – in the royal sense, as in “all of us, more or less” – tend to do this thing where we hype up a new female rapper to a certain point, then immediately look for ways to understand her effort, talent, and skill by only comparing her to her female peers. This most often expresses itself as “beef,” e.g. Foxy vs. Kim, Cardi vs. Nicki, Megan vs. Nicki, Nicki vs. basically every woman with the temerity to pick up a mic and rhyme in front of people and get even a little bit popular for doing so.
And you know what? That’s so boring. Rap gets compared to basketball a lot, but it isn’t actually a competitive sport. Aside from a degree of breath control and verbal dexterity, there isn’t much athleticism involved. Rappers are basically talking, occasionally a little faster than normal. There’s no inherent reason to separate the men from the women, as we do the NBA from its counterpart, the WNBA. Ms. Minaj doesn’t need to dunk or guard someone who can.
An unfortunate byproduct of the tendency above is that we then often divide women into classes in a way that actually does generate unfair competition. Because we are so often trying to compare them, we tend to classify them as one of two types. You already know what I’m referring to here. The popular women, who make the streetwise, booty-shaking, strip club anthems, and the traditionalists, who supposedly dress modestly and adhere to the old-school ideals of bars-first “real hip-hop.”
But this leaves too many women, whose styles aren’t so easily classified, out of the conversation. Women like Sampa, whose biography is so unique among rappers of all genders. Born in Zambia, she was later raised in Botswana, then lived in California while studying music for visual media. She later moved to Sydney, Australia, where she got a degree in audio engineering and started her rap career in earnest, infusing her music with the diversity of sounds that have surrounded her since childhood as she shifts from earnest, thoughtful rhymes about her experiences to devastatingly direct battle raps as brash and bold as those of the staunchest rap purist’s.
As Above, So Below is her most complete work yet. With roots stretching throughout the diaspora, tapping traditional instruments and contemporary styles like the South African genre of kwaito, it’s every bit as ambitious and expansive as Beyoncé’s 2020 musical film Black Is King, but with a thread of authenticity that Sampa comes by naturally as a result of her upbringing. The musicality is on the same level as that of Little Simz’s 2021 album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, itself a criminally overlooked gem from that year that deserved more.
Gliding easily from triumphant African hip-hop on “Never Forget” to thumping, futuristic trap peppered with tribal chants on “Mask On,” As Above is every bit as adventurous musically as offerings this year from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and her Loma Vista labelmate Denzel Curry, who makes an appearance on the lead single “Lane.” Sampa rhymes and sings with the sort of gravity that pulled listeners to Lamar’s effort, but trims the unwieldy and grating moments that made that project so polarizing on its release in May.
Yes, we can attribute the difference in responses to other reasons; Sampa spent the last few years in her home country as a result of the pandemic, Americans have largely been reticent to embrace hip-hop from overseas, and Sampa is on an indie label, which limits her promotional release. On the other hand, it seems like every two weeks, there is a new viral sensation bubbling up from the depths of TikTok to become Rap America’s latest sweetheart. The point is, we shouldn’t even be able to make an argument that gender contributed to rap fans’ relative nescience of Sampa’s virtuosity.
Because, even with all those other potential arguments, there’s no reason we aren’t breathlessly dissecting the bars on “IDGAF” or hailing “Let Me Be Great” as a potential Grammy winner. African artists are more popular than ever here; Burna Boy, Wizkid, and more have broken out as legitimate pop stars. Rap’s spotlight on women – albeit, only a certain type of women – is brighter than ever. As Above is every bit as musically dynamic and artistically challenging as any other hip-hop album. And we are going to start the discussion.
As Above, So Below is out now via Loma Vista Recordings and Concord. You can stream and purchase it here.