Sam Lao remembers when she had the Dallas music scene in the palm of her hands in 2013. From the day she released her debut EP West Pantego, the rapper and singer rode a 15-month wave of critical acclaim. She opened for famed English singer Jessie Ware and played Homegrown Festival, multiple Red Bull Sound Select events, official showcases at South by Southwest and a litany of local shows. Sam Lao was everywhere.
But in spite of all the momentum, there was one question Lao couldn't quite shake: How would she follow it all up?
“It was always in the back of my mind to record new music,” Lao says. “It just became this daunting task that I kept putting off. I just wanted to ride out that wave until the wheels fell off and then figure out how I can start up again, which probably wasn’t the best thing to do.”
Looking back, it’s hard to blame Lao for settling into an unproductive frame of mind. She had new friends, including members of Dallas’ music elite such as Sarah Jaffe, Symbolyc One and Picnictyme. She also received lots of media attention, with features and praise from every publication in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
She was on the trajectory most artists dream of, but then came a nightmare scenario: When she finally decided to follow up her first project toward the end of 2014, Lao was hit by an ugly bout of writer’s block.
Lao hadn’t expected so many people to respond so well to her initial work and she struggled to cope with the pressure and big expectations that came with it. The longer she waited, the worse it got. Her newfound audience had waited so long for new material that she wouldn’t be able to slide by with another five-track EP. Slowly, Lao began to piece together a new project throughout 2015, but as it neared completion last fall she and her producer had a disagreement. "They didn’t feel like things were happening as fast as they wanted it to," Lao says. "And I really wasn’t willing to give total control to someone else."
As a result, the producer pulled all but one of the tracks from the project, leaving Lao once more at square one.
“I lost everything I had worked hard on, and for a minute there I thought, ‘Yo, is this just going to be the end of Sam Lao?’” she says, looking back on the period of limbo that enveloped her follow-up. “Was it just this one sort of flash-in-the-pan thing with West Pantego?”
Lao remembers contemplating whether to continue her music career. Music is only one of Lao's artistic outlets; she’s also a painter, designer and sculptor. But while she theoretically had other interests to pursue, making music and performing it live is the most satisfying to her. So she didn't walk away; she remade the album.
With only the lyrics she had written, she enlisted the help of local producers Blue, the Misfit; Devin Candy; Donny Domino; and Picnictyme. They offered up tracks for Lao to work with. Picnictyme also worked with her to develop new tracks.
“Sam is an artist to the core,” Picnictyme says. “Sam would’ve been alright regardless of what she pursued because she’s one of those rarities who isn’t going to abide by any standards, whether it be industry, art scene or anything. She’s not just an artist in the studio, she applies it to her life.”
Now that the album is finally ready, Lao says she "absolutely take[s] responsibility for how long it has taken" to put it out. But there could be a silver lining: While her career took off suddenly at first, the things she's gone through since gave her time to develop her skills as both a rapper and a singer.
“I’m almost really happy that the situation happened because hearing what I have now is so much better than what I had before,” Lao says. “I’m way more satisfied with the album as it is now.”
The new project, which comes out February 26, is titled SPCTRM as an ode to Lao’s broad-ranging personality. Angry Sam, sad Sam and sexy Sam will all be on display, coming together to form the full spectrum of Sam Lao. “A lot of the tracks reflect specific moods of mine,” Lao says. “I just really wanted to show those different sides and make music that other women can listen to and relate to. As a woman we’re told we can only be one way and if we’re not that way we’re a total bitch.”
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The opening track of the album, “Reminder (Bitch, I’m Me),” confronts that very idea. It taps into the paralyzing pressure she faced to get back to work, her sudden rise to prominence and her doubt in her own abilities, before arriving at a self-affirming proclamation of, “Bitch, I’m me!” It’s a strong opening statement.
Soon after, Lao offers up her sultry side with the track “Gold Link,” which shows her at her most mature and polished, before switching gears and displaying her versatile rap skills on tracks such as “Fool’s Gold” and “Grenade.” The album works to show off the artist’s many facets and how she balances them.
As difficult as it was making the new album for Lao, her growing pains aren’t entirely over yet. A few months ago, she made the difficult decisions to walk away from signing a record deal and leave her management. She says she had concerns that she wasn’t the primary focus there and could get lost in the shuffle, but she says it's been "refreshing" to manage herself "because everyone should know how to manage themselves."
“Having all that happen really made me decide how badly I want it. And I want it very badly. I got my shit together and figured out a way to rebuild,” Lao says. “I’m not gonna lie, I want that tear again. I just want the tear to last longer and go farther than before.”