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The Return (Ninja Tune)

The Australian Music Prize is not given for promise, for potential; it’s for fully realised quality. When Sampa The Great, aka Sampa Tembo, won it last year for her album/mix tape, Birds And The BEE9, it was in recognition of a powerful, varied, insightful and incisive collection that felt Australian in so many ways – an idealised Australia for the judges maybe, but still – and yet universal.

The meld of soul and hip hop, rock’s edges and an African diaspora woven through it all, still sounds fresh and biting. Not to mention unexpected and challenging to those who had long decided what was and what wasn’t “Australian”.

(Tembo herself is hardly confined to being an Australian. Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, she’s lived in Sydney and Melbourne and has collaborators around the world.)

However, The Return, officially the first Sampa The Great album, is so thoroughly satisfying for adventure, potent lyrics, imagination, and depth, that it makes that mix tape feel like a starter pack. That was potential; this is realisation, this is, as she declares in the early ‘70s righteous funk and black power salute that kicks off the second half of the album, the Final Form.

Whether she’s borrowing The Stylistics’ creamy You Make Me Feel Brand New for a play-off with Silentjay that is equal parts sly and sweet (Brand New), making some string-enhanced, neo-Lauryn Hill euphoric hip hop with Whosane (Heaven) or declaring “fuck ambience” and more directly fuck the industry’s blacksploitation, over some low-riding bass and snap-back counter-rap from Krown (Time’s Up), Tembo feels in supreme control.

In Grass Is Greener she nimbly dances through a candid revelation of alone-ness and self-awareness, her distinctive reedy vocal tone explaining among other things that “I speak in first person because it’s better for my health” while some fluid funk guitar slinks along.

Immediately after, in Dare To Fly, she tightens up to something more staccato – contrasted by the pop hum of Ecca Vandal – while all around her is a busy, sometimes clattering jerk-soul that owes more to Fela Kuti than anyone.

Then, as if to rub in her versatility, Any Day takes up the cudgels to both white thought bubbles and homogeneity, with her delivery moving effortlessly from dancehall to battlefloor as a Steely Dan-meets-Fatback Band melange smooths the way, while OMG puts her quick-rhyming on the freaky dancefloor waiting to be picked up by Janelle Monae – who would recognise a kindred spirit.

For those who still move through an album from first notes to final song, the short and packed 16 tracks which occupy the first 55 minutes of the 77 minute-long album, will feel enough for a full deal on their own. But that’s just when Tembo shifts, or kicks up another gear.

The vast, complex title track (with thando, Jace XL, Alien and Whosane on hand) sprawls across nine minutes of gospelising and dreamscape, jazz and an African thunder road, fluidly incorporating each variation as if absorbing them through the skin.

That’s the form, with subtle variations, for the next two tracks, the languid but emotionally dense Don’t Give Up, and the luxuriantly warm, Sade-knew-my-mother Made Us Better. The three tracks comprise almost a new deal, like a mini-world accompanying the record that serve as one more reward for (a) staying and (b) playing this in order.

Neither an idealised Australia, nor a sin-pitted world, The Return is Sampa The Great envisaging – or creating - something richer by far.

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