Nigeria’s Burna Boy was born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu. He’s connected with Nigerian musical royalty – his grandfather once managed Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. His star is clearly on the rise; he’s guested on a UK number-one hit for Stormzy, while African Giant was nominated for a Best World Music Album Grammy.
Although Burna Boy dislikes the term, his music is referred to as Afrobeats (distinct from Afrobeat) – modern African pop music that fuses elements of reggae, R&B, hip hop, western pop, and the Afrobeat of the previous generation. Burna Boy is a proficient singer and rapper, and also throws in some political narration:
Actually, there’s one additional detail that bears mentioning
In order to take over the territories from the Niger Company
The British Government paid eight hundred and sixty-five thousand pounds
A huge amount in 1900
So let’s establish a simple truth
The British didn’t travel halfway across the world just to spread democracy
Nigeria started off as a business deal for them
Between a company and a government
I’ve only covered Burna Boy’s more recent records for now, but I’m planning to come back and cover his three earlier albums.
Burna Boy Album Reviews
The title stands for Leaving an Impact For Eternity. After a couple of mixtapes, Burna Boy’s debut album was an instant success, selling 40,000 copies on the day of release.
L.I.F.E. stands for Leaving an Impact For Eternity – Burna Boy’s never been afraid of publicising himself in his album titles. Fellow rising Nigerian star Wizkid guests on ‘Jahs Love is True’.
On A Spaceship
Burna Boy left Aristokrat Records after his debut, instead forming his own label, Spaceship Entertainment. Appropriately, On a Spaceship was the first record released on the new label. It’s frustrating – Burna Boy’s versatility can be a detriment, and the record ranges from sublime to ridiculous over its lengthy running time. It could have used a trim, and it’s Burna Boy’s most mainstream album, and in this case his least interesting.
It opens defensively with ‘Intro’, seemingly redundant for an artist only on their second album – “controversy has clouded his whole career”. The best song is warm and inviting – ‘The Realest’ showcases his smooth voice. But it’s outweighed by a plethora of generic material – in particular the seven-minute ‘Birthday’ is a low point.
On A Spaceship is frustrating, Burna Boy often less interesting than usual.
Burna Boy describes his third album as a mixtape. The description makes sense – it features an array of guest stars and was recorded in a variety of locations – notably, the title track was recorded on Pete Townshend’s studio boat. But despite the variety of approaches, the final result is a much tighter record than its predecessor. It’s a tight 45-minute record with few weak spots, easily one of Burna Boy’s strongest records.
Outside features cameos from Lily Allen and J Hus, although the most exciting guest appearance is arguably the posthumous appearance of Burna Boy’s hero Fela Kuti, via a sample of ‘Sorrow, Tears, and Blood’. ‘Ye’ became Burna Boy’s most-streamed song, largely due to confusion with the Kanye West album of the same name.
There’s a range of moods – the breezy ‘Streets of Africa’ has a chorus that sounds like it’s lifted from a traditional singalong. On the other end of the spectrum, the closing ‘Outside’ has a modern electronic sheen – Burna Boy’s voice sounds great in the deep register, while he’s joined by Mabel, the daughter of Neneh Cherry.
Outside is varied in approach, yet it’s one of Burna Boy’s most consistent records.
The title African Giant refers to Burna Boy’s displeasure at his billing for the 2019 Coachella festival. On his Instagram account, he pronounced; “I really appreciate you. But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small in your bill. I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix tings quick please.”
Much of African Giant was recorded in a Lagos hotel room with producer Kel P. Burna Boy’s songs are straightforward, but his delivery is charismatic and he covers a lot of stylistic ground over the nineteen tracks of African Giant. There’s plenty of Nigerian musical tradition on African Giant – African guitar is often prominent on songs like ‘Collateral Damage’. The most acclaimed track, ‘Anybody’, recalls Fela Kuti with its horn stabs and Afrobeat feel.
If ‘Anybody’ is the best song on African Giant, there are highlights all over the place. ‘Dangote’ is about the Nigerian billionaire businessman with interests in cement and sugar, while Nigerian singer Zlatan guests on the terse ‘Killing Dem’.
It’s entirely possible that this seemingly exotic blend of music sounds utterly mainstream in Nigeria. Nevertheless, I’m happy to support Burna Boy’s claims that he is indeed an African Giant.
Twice As Tall
Burma Boy’s African Giant was one of my favourite records of 2019. It’s a tough act to follow, but the title of Twice is Tall maintains the bravado. It’s a bigger budget record, produced by Diddy and featuring a long list of guest artists. In places Burna Boy’s Nigerian identity is subsumed under the more mainstream approach – this is undoubtedly the first record where Pat Boone, Naughty By Nature, Chris Martin, and Youssou N’Dour share space – but there are enough great moments here to make it a worthy follow-up.
While some of the collaborations drag, there’s plenty of vibrant Afro-fusion on Twice as Tall. It helps that Burna Boy’s voice is so warm and supple – I’d happily listen to him sing the phone book. The songs that stay the closest to Burna Boy’s African heritage, like ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Onyeka (Baby)’, are the most irresistible – placed around a third of the way through Twice as Tall, they reinvigorate it after a sluggish start.
Of the collaborative material, the opener ‘Level Up (Twice As Tall)’ works despite featuring the incongruous mix of Youssou N’Dour and a Pat Boone sample. The collaborations with Chris Martin (on ‘Monsters You Made’) and Stormzy (on ‘Real Life’) are less convincing.
Twice as Tall feels like a bare-faced bid for global superstardom – deserved, but the crossover attempts aren’t as effortlessly sincere as the African-flavoured material.
Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy is back with his sixth studio album. The pay-per-stream model of current music consumption encourages bloated 18-track albums with masses of guest appearances. To its detriment, Love, Damini is a prime example of this trend. The first half recalls the excellence of Burna Boy’s 2019 classic African Giant. The second half meanders through an incoherent mess of guest appearances.
It’s worth it for an impressive first half – ‘Glory’, with its jazzy syncopation and supporting vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is a strong and spiritual opener. ‘Kilometre’ came out more than a year in advance of the record and remains excellent. ‘Last Last’ is an even better single, blending soulful verses with a hooky chorus. My favourite Burna Boy tracks are his political songs, and I enjoy ‘Whiskey’, about the oil pollution in his hometown.
The second half of Love, Damini is a tougher sell – there’s a surprisingly enjoyable Ed Sheeran song, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs on a Burna Boy record. The mellow, jazzy texture of ‘Common Person’ provides one reason to listen to the end, but it’s slimmer pickings.
Love, Damini has strong moments, particularly in the first half, but it’s too long and too incoherent.
I Told Them…
Burna Boy topped the UK charts with his seventh studio album – it was released after selling out the London Stadium. During the concert, Burna Boy alluded to the album title – I Told Them… is short for “I Told Them I’m A Genius”. I’m not sure that he qualifies as a genius yet, but It’s his strongest album for some time – it’s tighter and shorter, and he benefits from using low-key arrangements at times. He’s joined by guest vocalists, but it works well here – Dave’s verse on ‘Cheat On Me’ is a highlight, while GZA and RZA from Wu-Tang Clan also appear.
The album also spawned a bunch of top 40 hits in the UK – ‘City Boys’ was the biggest hit, although I’m partial to the breezy ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’. The less pop-oriented material at the end of the record is also successful – Burna Boy sounds great on the acoustic ‘If I’m Lying’, while ‘Giza’ emphasises African percussion.
Burna Boy’s now a bonafide superstar – it’s a deserved success, with one of his stronger albums connecting.
Ten Best Burna Boy Songs
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