Review: Burna Boy’s ‘I Told Them…’

An excellent example of the singer’s mastery of sound and intent despite his fixation on endless praise

In the pantheon of contemporary Nigerian music, Burna Boy is a name associated with the biggest feats: sold-out concerts and tours, chart-topping singles and albums, dozens of awards nominations and millions of followers worldwide across Africa, Europe and the Carribean. It’s a position the Port Harcourt-born man has always dreamed of. “No be say I wan blow with one track/And my music fade away/And I no fit come back/I dey try to win a Grammy to say I don die,” he sings in “Yawa Dey,” the 2013 single that preceded his debut album ‘L.I.F.E – Leaving an Impact for Eternity,’  released in that same year. Six albums and one Grammy win later, Burna Boy’s music reverberates across the world, leading the way for Nigeria’s march on the globe.


Since grabbing the spotlight (aided by his track “Ye” from 2018’s ‘Outside’ being mistaken for Kanye West’s album ‘Ye’), Burna Boy has marshalled his rise to the pinnacle of success with consistent quality releases and equally excellent live performances. The 2019 run-up to his album ‘African Giant’ was the stuff of dreams, with “Gbona,” “On the Low,” “Killin Dem” with Zlatan, “Dangote” and “Anybody” heightening up the excitement for the project. He opened up about the ideological and sociopolitical leanings of the album on international radio and television platforms such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Ebro in the Morning on Hot 97, Power 105.1 FM’s The Breakfast Club and The Big Boy’s Neighborhood. It all culminated in his first Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album, which he lost to Angélique Kidjo’s ‘Celia.’

Burna Boy’s next album, ‘Twice as Tall’, eventually won him the Grammy plaque and he’s been on an upward trajectory. On his newest album ‘I Told Them…,’ Burna Boy has a new motive: announcing to his doubters that he’s achieved everything they didn’t believe he would. It seems a petty incentive because why would an artist conquering the world with his music and shutting down more-than-fifty-thousand-people-carrying venues care about the cold shoulders of naysayers? But so is the mind of a creator, constantly motivated by their experiences. In the case of Burna Boy, he’s always felt like he has a point to prove. After losing out to Sean Tizzle in the Next Rated category in the 2013 Headies and walking out of the event, Burna Boy has carried the reputation of an outcast, presumably undermined by his people and honoured by outsiders. His off-music actions have also drawn the ire of the public, calling into question his pan-African and humanist branding.

Is this the motherfucking thanks I get/For making my people proud every chance I get?” he fires on the J. Cole-featuring “Thanks.” Those words shine a light on Burna Boy’s grievances. He’s a man who has come a long way and gathered so many wins but he’s still unsatisfied with the reception from his home supporters, those who, in fact, have followed his journey since the 2011 mixtape ‘Burn Identity.’ You say my mama dance for Fela/You say I no get baby mama/You say that I’m cancelled again/You say I shoot pesin for Cubana/Because I wan collect pesin woman,” he goes on again on “Thanks.” It was at the Lagos leg of his Love, Damini tour that Burna Boy first spoke directly to Nigerians about the reasons for his annoyance. “No wahala. I still love you, na why I dey here. So if you like, no love me, na God go punish you,” he was recorded saying. On ‘I Told Them…’, Burna Boy raves at Nigerians but to the hearing of foreigners.

As Burna Boy’s profile has grown, so has his artistic evolution. ‘Outside’, with its pointed forage into the UK sounds of Afroswing and road rap, was the beginning of Burna Boy’s transformation into a global act. With the backing of major labels Bad Habit and Atlantic, Burna Boy refreshed his dynamic offering of Afrobeats, Dancehall and Reggae. ‘African Giant’ was the tipping point where years of consistency and quality met to serve up a swaggering superstar. On ‘Twice as Tall,’  with the endorsement of American music mogul and co-executive producer Diddy, Burna Boy ingrained himself into the fabric of the American music space, unarguably the biggest in the world. On ‘I Told Them…’, Burna Boy is returning to a time when he first fell in love with rap and American pop culture with the appearances and influences of GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan spread throughout the album.


GZA suffixes album opener “I Told Them” with a spoken word rendition highlighting his and Burna Boy’s elevation above the ordinary. “I’m in a place where perception is developed/If you can’t walk on these shoes, then your feet would swell up,” GZA says. There are also kung-fu samples (a staple of Wu-Tang Clan’s music) interacting with the rest of the tracks. There are also the Islamic teachings adopted by the Wu-Tang Clan where on “12 Jewels,” RZA educates Burna Boy, saying, “The twelve jewels are basically the twelve important things/That a man should inspire for/That’s the best acquisition you can have, right/And it’s simple/Knowledge, wisdom, understanding/Freedom, justice, equality/Food, clothing, shelter/Love, peace and happiness.” On closer inspection, ‘I Told Them…’ is Burna Boy’s tale of seeking self and spiritual purity and finding a balance while luxuriating in the physical pleasures.

Nowhere is the album’s focal point more encapsulated than on “If I’m Lying,” a soaring track of guitar and piano. Burna Boy flits in and out, emotion-laden, singing and humming, about riding the waves of life. “Every day, I just dey give thanks for life/Know how to move ‘cause I know sacrifice/Lose control, still hold on tight/Won’t be the only time,” he sings. The song—most especially the chorus—is one of Burna Boy’s best works. “If I’m Lying” is also similar to the last run of ‘Love, Damini’, where the songs “Wild Dreams,” (with Khalid), “How Bad Could It Be” and “Love, Damini” (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo) peeled back the layers of the superstar figure to reveal his vulnerabilities. There aren’t many vulnerable moments in ‘I Told Them…’ but a whole lot of happiness and braggadocio to reflect the survival of the harsh times.

On Normal,” Burna Boy announces that he’s operating at a higher level than he was in the past: “People dey doubt, sey e sure for me ké?/Rich nigga before I sign to label.” On “On Form” and the Brandy-sampling “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” with 21 Savage, he reiterates his dominance, singing on the latter, “In an eleven room mansion/Pure like water wey dey for nylon/I pull up in my high fashion, every light flashing.” If the message wasn’t clear enough, on “Big 7,” where he pays homage to close associates Virgil Abloh and Sidhu Moose Wala, Burna Boy pulls up the receipts about his global reach—“Wavy since London,” “Wavy since Berlin,” “Wavy since Sweden,” “Wavy since Paris,” and then he informs listeners: “I’m in a different place.”


While ‘I Told Them…’ is Burna Boy’s gospel, his guests contribute greatly to its structure. GZA and RZA infuse their Wu-Tang Clan characteristics into the project, fulfilling Burna Boy’s teenage dreams. UK rapper Dave, with whom Burna Boy scored a classic hit on “Location,” wields his usual deft pen on the Kwabs-sampling “Cheat On Me,” with both he and Burna Boy determined never to shortchange themselves. 21 Savage furthers the big-boy talk on “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” with swagger. Seyi Vibez steals the show on “Giza,” with his memorable one-liners and the inescapable magic of his favoured producer Modra. J. Cole’s sure hand is a beautiful addition to “Thanks,” with clever songwriting and expert delivery. Byron Messia’s gangster energy complements Burna Boy’s on “Talibans II,” with both artists feeding off each other’s vibes. The collaborations are signposts to Burna Boy’s skills as a curator to select the right talents and contributors to his story.

Three days before the release of ‘I Told Them…,’ Burna Boy’s interview with Zane Lowe (hosted by Apple Music) premiered. The conversation took place at Rock and Soul, a famed DJ equipment and record store in New York City. Burna Boy and Lowe spoke about the album, his admiration for New York and its rappers, and his philosophies. A part of that conversation caught the attention of the Nigerian audience when Burna Boy touched on Afrobeats, saying, “90% of them, have almost no real-life experiences that they can understand, which is why you hear most of Nigerian music, or I’ll say African… I don’t even know what to say, Afrobeats, as people call it, it’s mostly about nothing, literally nothing. There’s no substance to it.” That comment caught Burna Boy some heat—and rightfully so. 

Burna Boy has relentlessly called his style of music Afrofusion, as he blends R&B, Hip-Hop, Afrobeats, Dancehall and more into a sound that’s uniquely his. While Burna Boy isn’t the only Nigerian act branding themselves by ‘owning’ a sound—see Rema’s Afro Rave—there’s stylistically not much difference between what he does and what the likes of The Remedies or D’banj did in the early 2000s. In the history of contemporary Nigerian music, artists have always borrowed elements from genres and painted them with ‘Nigerianness.’ What many found concerning about Burna Boy’s comments was that he, as a leading figure in the music scene, was perpetuating a damaging narrative to a foreign market, when there’s 2Baba’s romantic and sociopolitical detailing on ‘Face 2 Face’ and ‘Grass 2 Grace’ or Wizkid taking stock of stardom on ‘Superstar’ or most recently Omah Lay’s exploration of mental health with ‘Boy Alone.’  Also, not all music must have ‘substance’; sometimes, music, being food for the soul, is just meant to be felt and enjoyed in moments.


The soundscape of ‘I Told Them…’ is symbolic of everything the Afrobeats genre encourages: fusion. American R&B and Hip-Hop are the essentials of the songs “Normal,” “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” “Big 7” and “City Boys.” The last of the four samples Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex” and is a joyful tune about Burna Boy’s wins. “Giza” and “If I’m Lying” create a home for Amapiano and oriental influences, respectively. “Talibans II” and Tested, Approved & Trusted” fit in the Dancehall and Caribbean music lane. “On Form” absorbs the African percussion and instrumentals. The producers come from Nigeria, Germany, the UK, US and France and also have ties with other nations, thereby offering a host of influences that give ‘I Told Them…’ a universal feel.

‘I Told Them…’  is an excellent example of Burna Boy’s mastery of sound and intent. While his fixation on demanding endless praise without taking responsibility for his wrongs is worrisome, it doesn’t take away from the strengths of the album. The Wu-Tang Clan effects streamline the project into a coherent output, as they highlight Burna Boy’s reach and appeal yet don’t hinder him from making a fun album about his achievements. The road is paved in gold for Burna Boy; moving forward, he alone determines what direction he takes.