Last fall, Sam Lao found herself onstage at South Side Music Hall, opening for buzzy British singer-songwriter Jessie Ware.
Before a crowd of a few hundred, the Dallas-based rapper, outfitted in what looked like a football jersey, and with less than 10 live performances to her credit, carried herself like a seasoned pro.
That night was just the latest in a series of surreal happenings for Lao (real name: Samantha Mattice-Lowery).
“I was in Urban Outfitters and someone came up to me and said, ‘Didn’t you open for Jessie Ware the other night?’ ” Lao recalls. “And I was like, ‘Yes, yes I did.’ It amazes me that people recognize me — I’m just a regular person, people!”
If the final months of 2013 were any indication, however, Sam Lao should be prepared for many more is-this-really-happening moments in 2014.
Armed with a poetic, insightful way with words and mentored by one of the most exciting rap ensembles in North Texas, it’s only a matter of time before Lao’s name is on the tip of every local music fan’s tongue.
Three months later, on a bitterly cold January morning, the laid-back Lao is sipping a cup of tea at Oddfellows and reflecting upon the past six months.
Clad in all black save for a wrap around her waist offering a pop of color, Lao, whose towering, curly, frizzy mane inspired her Instagram handle (Samwiththehair), has a gaze that can be piercing, but her intense mien easily dissolves into laughter.
At one point during our photo shoot, an Oddfellows waiter casually asks Lao if she was in the restaurant recently, photographing an ad campaign for Samsung. It’s an easy assumption to make — Lao has the bearing and striking good looks of a model — and one she politely demurs; no, it wasn’t her.
Again: Is all this really happening?
The Arlington native can’t help but shake her head and smile at it all, bemused at the visceral reaction to her debut EP, West Pantego, and how she has found herself sharing the stage with a number of local and national heavy hitters.
While her embrace of creating and performing music is relatively new, the 24-year-old Lao, a freshly minted graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where she majored in visual communication, is determined to make art on her own terms.
But before it all came together, everything fell apart.
Road to ‘West Pantego’
Lao, who describes herself as “an artist from birth” and an avid sculptor, painter and graphic designer, was scheduled to graduate from UTA last May, when she discovered she couldn’t afford to remain in school and was forced to drop out in February, three months shy of finishing her final semester. (She eventually returned and matriculated last month.)
“I was so fed up and depressed and I was really in a bad place,” Lao says. “I know a lot of the guys in [local rap collective] Brain Gang and was going to the studio with them, and Killa[MC] introduced me to Ish D, who’s one of the producers for Brain Gang.
“I sort of took to music as the new ‘this is keeping me sane.’ At that point, I had no creative desire to sculpt, paint, do graphic design — I wasn’t touching any of that.”
Over the summer, Lao, alongside Ish D, KillaMC and other mentor figures, created what became West Pantego, a confident, six-song debut released in August that doesn’t betray a trace of self-doubt or depression.
Instead, the project feels like a declaration of self, an assured document of an artist with something substantial to say, a competitive streak (“It’s all just a race/We set the pace,” she raps in Nirvana) and no shyness about putting her message across.
Some of the excitement about Lao’s freshman EP is merely the dearth of female rappers in North Texas (especially in relation to how many men there are making hip-hop music in DFW), but thankfully, her skills are what have elevated her to the front of the pack.
Male or female, Lao can deliver substantive verses with enough speed to make your head spin — check out her dazzling runs on West Pantego’s closer, Paradise.
“I remember the day we recorded the first song and thinking to myself, ‘The people aren’t ready,’ ” says KillaMC (real name: Donovan Payne). “Watching her grow this last year has been very exciting, because it’s just confirmation that we are going in the right direction and the hard work isn’t falling on deaf ears.”
The record’s title is a nod to Lao’s background, as well as something of an affectionate inside joke for North Texas residents (Pantego isn’t exactly name-checked all that often — or ever — when it comes to popular culture).
“All through elementary and middle school, I lived right on the border of Fort Worth and Arlington and then right before I started high school, my parents got divorced and we ended up moving to Florida and West Palm Beach,” Lao says. “I came back for college, and my dad was living in west Pantego, so I sort of took those two places as … the pivotal locations in my life, where I had those milestones becoming a person. When I was releasing my project, it felt like another milestone and I also wanted people to feel where I was from and see [that] this is where Sam Lao is from.”
Lao didn’t just turn critics’ heads with the release of West Pantego — she also caught the attention of scene luminaries like Sarah Jaffe, who was so dazzled by Lao’s performance at October’s Index Fest in Deep Ellum that she approached the rapper after her set and asked if the pair could perform together some time. (They’ll share a bill Jan. 25 at the Granada Theater, where Lao will also be Friday as part of a Dallas Observer-sponsored hip-hop showcase.)
“I didn’t expect it to get this big at all — I was like, what, people like this? People want more shows? People are coming up to me after my set and want to take pictures with me? What?” Lao says, breaking into an incredulous grin.
“It’s amazing, and I’m super grateful. It’s still like I have this new toy where I’m like, YES.”
Editor’s note: As much as we wish there were a fully functioning crystal ball in the DFW.com offices, there is no such apparatus.
But that won’t keep us from casting our gaze forward and forecasting who and what will capture our imaginations this year: in addition to Sam Lao, the hip-hop queen in waiting, we also showcase a wonderful and weird artist who is finally getting his due, a young pastry chef whose sweet creations could become the talk of the town, a fresh-faced newsman, an inspiring actor, and even a surprising drink that could propel the next craft craze.
Those are a just few of the stars we’ve got our eyes on for 2014.
8 p.m. Friday
Granada Theater, Dallas