I recently started a list of albums that “make everything okay.” It’s a short list; Late Nights, Anti, Ego Death, Beyoncé, among a few others. They don’t make everything okay because they are all critically acclaimed or explicitly socially meaningful or anything like that, but they make everything okay because they all help me feel like myself in the way only music can. During my first listen of Dallas-based rapper Sam Lao’s SPCTRM, I knew it had joined the ranks.
So let me tell you why SPCTRM makes everything okay.
At her album release show, Sam Lao’s mentor and rapper 88 Killa took the stage to introduce her. “Sam went through so much to make this for us,” he told the audience. “So many people tried to say she wasn’t shit, but Sam is probably one of the best, not only female MCs, but best MCs in Dallas.”
It’s probably true. It’s probably true because with every play, SPCTRMfulfills a female perspective that women in the Dallas hip hop scene crave.
Lao says her husband calls her his “budding feminist.” That makes sense.SPCTRM is such a “budding feminist” body of work because it expresses the versatility of who Lao is and the complexity of her confidence and willingness to discover who she wants to be. The album resides in the idea that Sam Lao is not just one thing and that she will not always be the same thing.
“[It represents] all the feelings I have. With a song like ‘Bitch I’m Me,’ you get angry, angsty Sam—the ‘you are not going to tell me what to do’ Sam. With ‘Gold Link,’ you get sultry, sexy Sam. I wanted to show this is all me, it just depends on a mood or a situation.”
The power in SPCTRM comes from many places, but what makes it so valuable is its versatility. “Bitch I’m Me,” “Be Cool,” and crowd favorites “If I” and “Gold Link” all represent explicitly different feelings, ideas, and versions of Lao.
While in its early stages, Lao lost most of the project and had to again start from scratch, but while it was a lot to overcome, she says it wasn’t the only obstacle.
“Obviously, the biggest thing that happened was me losing the tracks, but there was a lot of the other stuff that was more personal,” Lao says. “Writer’s block, doubting myself, wondering if I could follow up the success of[Lao’s debut album] West Pantego. I felt like I really had to deal with this perceived notion of outside pressure when really most of the pressure is in my head. I think that really held me back the longest.”
SPCTRM is a testament to her endurance; her fight to share herself with the world makes her work that much more powerful.
“I liked what I was making [in the early stages], but it felt like I was just doing it because that was the logical next step,” Lao says. “What I was making wasn’t bad, but having to go through adversity to do it made me really have to really get my shit together. I was just able to function better under pressure. I just had something to prove to myself and to everyone who had been waiting so long. Once I got past all that shit it got done, and dealing with all that shit—losing my tracks, the internal nonsense— it made me work harder to make a good project. And I think I succeeded in that.”
“I don’t think I initially realized that these were feminist ideas; it wasn’t until it started coming together and I started to see that pattern happening. Once I noticed that, I started really feeding into it.
In the process of conquering the setbacks, Lao realized that she was making an album for women.
“Originally I just wanted to share different experiences and emotions, you know, just the spectrum of what someone’s personality and emotions are,” she says. “I don’t think I initially realized [that these were feminist ideas]; it wasn’t until it started coming together and I started to see that pattern happening. [Once I noticed that,] I started really feeding into it.”
“On a song like ‘Pineapple,’ I talk about dudes trying to holler at you and then getting mad when you don’t respond. It goes, ‘Oh you mad because you couldn’t get the digits / so the script you wanna flip it / you sayin’ I ain’t bad but you damn sure tryna kick it.’ I feel like that’s the epitome of how men treat you sometimes. Or ‘Gold Link,’ a song about being a woman and approaching a guy. I feel like that should be way more acceptable than it is. I feel like so many women can identify with that.”
Lao wants part of her narrative to be about being a woman and a feminist.
I remember a conversation I had with Lao last fall, before I even knew she was working on a new album, I cornered her after a show (sorry Sam, I was excited!) to talk to her about how good her music makes me feel and how it makes me feel really good to be a woman. She told me, “Yeah? That’s something I’ve really been trying to work on.”
The sentiment has not faded.
“I think [in writing music for women] you just have to think about your own experiences. So many of these experiences that I’m writing about are experiences that other women share,” Lao says. “It is also very important for us to share those experiences and speak to one another, because you never know who might have had a similar experience and how that might have resonated for them. I feel like that’s a really important thing to happen, and I’m trying to do better and be more vocal.”
Lao is inspired by the women of all ages who are listening to her music and connecting because of it.
“One thing that has really inspired me to do that is I have a really young fan, her name is Marley,” Lao tells me. “She is in elementary school and she loves me. I was sort of thinking about how much she looks up to me and how excited she gets. My friend babysits her and sends me videos of her dancing to my songs. It means a lot to me, because Marley is also mixed, and I didn’t really have a lot of role models who looked like me when I was growing up. To suddenly be thrust into these shoes of someone looking up to me, I think that it’s really important and I’ve tried to embrace that.
“Not only for girls like Marley, but for women who are my own age. I feel like we are at this point—thanks really to the internet—to see women of our own age that we admire and learn about their experiences and share that. Just to build a community of women who know that we can do this shit together.”
I ask her if she does something that I do: search for the women and community around me in Dallas. I think a lot about all of the women around me and how many of us don’t know each other. At moments like a Sam Lao show, we come together, because when there is an opportunity to build that community, we take it.
“It’s hard to find spaces to be a woman in Dallas. Like, what do we do? Who do we talk to? How do we build these spaces? I’m still trying to figure it out myself.”
“It’s hard to find spaces to be a woman in Dallas,” she tells me. “Like, what do we do? Who do we talk to? How do we build these spaces? I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I know how I feel, and every once in a while you run into someone who feels the same, and it’s relieving to feel like, ‘Oh, you get it!’ I think that in SPCTRM it is pretty apparent that those feminist ideas are in my work, and I think it will help me figure out how I can build that safe space of sharing knowledge and ideas.”
What makes SPCTRM so meaningful is that Lao packs the complexity of her ideas, her experiences and what she wants to provide for other people, into the actual music. She’s not trying to be who or what someone else wants her to be. She’s interested in learning, growing, and sharing her hard work and soul through her music. SPCTRM is an album that Dallas needs, because it shows unabashed bravery in who she is, not a desire to fall in line with what anybody expects from her.
SPCTRM makes everything okay because, above all, the album is a wholehearted acceptance that being a woman, a creative, and a person will always mean you are a complex combination of experiences and ideas.
Plus, it’s a fucking jam.
This story is featured in Austere URL/IRL, our 17th issue out on April 9th.