Arriving two years after Birds and the BEE9, a mixtape strong enough to win the Australian Music Prize, The Return is the long-awaited debut album by rapper, songwriter, and poet Sampa the Great. The vast, ambitious full-length reflects several years of constant, intense soul-searching, and its songs and interludes revolve around themes of identity, homecoming, and self-empowerment. Sampa was born in Zambia and raised in Botswana before settling in Australia, and her African heritage shapes the sound of the album, which is filled with lush, polyrhythmic instrumental arrangements and spirited vocal chants. Opening song "Mwana" (meaning "child" in the Zambian language Bemba) features guest vocals by Sampa's mother and sister, and the lyrics express the pain of self-discovery. She also contemplates her place in the music industry on tracks like "Freedom" and "Grass Is Greener," ruminating on how to maintain artistic freedom and what to compromise in order to be successful, as well as how to keep up the appearance of being fine when there are a multitude of problems brewing inside. "Any Day" is specifically about representation within the industry, calling for more black journalists and booking agencies. Through it all, Sampa remains optimistic and indefatigable, and her triumphant spirit is best exemplified by the infectious "OMG," a giddy celebration of her culture which she describes as sounding like the music she grew up hearing. Her skills on the microphone have significantly improved, and she raps much harder than on her earlier material. Though her music incorporates a wide variety of jazz, soul, and African influences, her dedication to hip-hop is never more apparent than on the victorious "Final Form," a black power anthem with a strong, 9th Wonder-inspired beat. The final stretch of the album is much mellower, from the heartfelt reflection of "Summer" (featuring London jazz crew Steam Down), through the meditative "Give Love" and "Don't Give Up," and ending with the peaceful resolution "Made Us Better." While the album's 78-minute running time might seem overwhelming at first, one assumes that Sampa felt that she couldn't have edited it down, as every statement carries deep personal significance. Full of insight and inspiration, The Return is an impressive, powerful work.
AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson