Burna Boy was quite confident going into 2018. Although he was far from being one of those previously nascent superstars with their backs to the wall, there was a sense that this was the Port Harcourt-born singer’s moment of truth, the tipping point to a potentially higher zenith. You see, in the years after his much beloved, cult classic debut LP, ‘L.I.F.E’, Burna’s trajectory had been muddied by a handful of low points, both in terms of music reception and persona perception. His 2015 sophomore album, ‘On A Spaceship’, was quite panned upon release and is commonly considered to be bottom rung in quite the magnificent discography.
It also didn’t help that he was quite the incendiary figure to a Nigerian press always ready to embolden to negative news and rumours. From his now infamous (non-)attire at the 2013 Felabration, to issuing death threats to “bloggers” circa 2015, and the highly publicised allegations of his involvement in a robbery incident in late 2017, Burna had earned a bad rap. He’d gone from being unanimously revered as a singular talent to inspiring ambivalence; there were still hordes of fans who swore by his music, and there were equal, if not more, bystanders who deemed the trouble to outweigh his musical output.
Historically, music has always been littered with superstars who happened to be complex characters, with traits that aren’t widely beloved. The rationale – even in this day and age of cancelling ultra-problematic famous people, where discussions about separating the art from the artists are omnipresent – is to balance the good with the undesirable and let fans individually determine where they stand with the artist. Even though Burna had yet to do, say or cop to anything wildly toxic that would warrant being widely shunned, there was a feeling amongst many that his music wasn’t consistently stellar enough to balance out his indiscretions. The solution was as clear as day: Come with great music.
When ‘Outside’ came out on January 26th, 2018, exactly three years ago today, it was meet with rapt attention and instant high praise. The third official long-play from the man born Damini Ogulu was a neat closing to the rather messy second act of his career, and a phenomenal entry into a prosperous third. About a year-and-a-half prior, the singer had dropped his first EP, ‘Redemption’, a back to basics effort that, these days, sounds equally genuine and reined in. By comparison, ‘Outside’ is a ferocious swing off the fences, a body of work that’s sonically scattershot but extremely coherent in presentation, mainly due to Burna’s vastly improved understanding of his powers as a malleable vocalist and vivid songwriter.
Even today, listening to ‘Outside’ is like riding a spinning, undulating carousel without feeling the nauseating, dizzying effect that usually accompanies such rides. In fact, coming in at an apt 44-minute duration, there’s a feeling of intense clarity that comes with how well Burna opens up his ability, whether it’s the way he bellows on the head-banging dancehall thrasher, “Heaven’s Gate”, or the sensual coos he issues over the Neo-Highlife groove of “Rock Your Body”, or his whimsical hopscotch on the finger-snapping Trap cut, “Streets of Africa”. The project also doubles as a riveting reintroduction to Burna, and a snapshot into his mind. Arguably its emotional centrepiece, the title track, which features British singer Mabel, is one of Burna’s best feats of introspection, where he reflects on his place in African Pop music, and openly admits his mother’s biggest fear of him ending up with the same fate as currently incarcerated, famed dancehall artist, Vybz Kartel.
From a commercial standpoint, though, the main gambit for ‘Outside’ is undoubtedly “YE”, the flawless Pop piece music sitting smack centre on the project. While it was already inching towards smash hit status at home, the global floodgate of attention came crashing in after American Hip-Hop artist Kanye West auspiciously released his similarly titled, eighth solo studio LP. For sure, this was serendipity at work, but the increased hype and subsequent acceptance of “YE” is clearly testament to the song’s quality, and further proof that luck happens when opportunity meets readiness. (Besides, that wasn’t the first time Kanye was unknowingly opening up a new audience to an artist; Burna simply ran with it.)
With “YE” as a springboard to increased international visibility, and resurgent, unreserved ubiquity in Nigeria and across the continent, ‘Outside’ followed suit as the first layer in the mosaic of one of the greatest creative runs contemporary Afropop has ever seen – and it may still be ongoing. Burna took the album, and his newfound notoriety, on tour, headlined by myth-building performances at London’s O2 Brixton arena and Eko Hotels in Lagos. In the same year, clearly feeling inspired from his career uptick and a new lease of life, he’d already began building up to his next album, with the release of smash singles, “Gbona”, “On A Low” and the Zlatan-assisted “Killin’ Dem” – the latter would go on to be the first huge hit of the following year.
If Burna Boy had entered 2018 feeling confident, he came into 2019 downright cocky. On the first day of that year, organisers of the hugely popular Coachella festival announced the line-up for the year’s edition. Burna Boy took issue with the positioning of his name and its font, well-known for refusing to bite his tongue, decreeing himself an African Giant. As usual, the public was split over this latest outburst, with a section identifying with Burna Boy’s pride, and the other side deeming it as a delusion of grandeur. Either side didn’t really matter to Burna, the next step was to back his claim up through his music, and what followed was watching him grow fiercer over the coming months.
With his singles from the ending of the previous year still very much in public rotation, Burna delivered “Dangote” on the very first day of March, an affecting hustler’s anthem referencing Africa’s richest man. That same month saw the release of ‘Steel & Copper’, the joint EP with American production duo DJDS, where Burna bounced from self-mythologising to sobering reflection over spacey Trap beats. Strictly released by Atlantic Records, whom he’d signed an international recording deal with (sans Africa), ‘Steel & Copper’ didn’t see local release, but from a creative standpoint, it’s an achievement in flaunting Burna’s adaptable skill-set. It may have been a minor release, from an impact perspective, but it’s a notable part of this run.
The main course for 2019, ‘African Giant’, arrived in late July, over a month after sharing its next big single, “Anybody”. In several ways, ‘African Giant’ is Burna’s assertion of his singularity as an Afro-Fusion artist within the context of Pop music’s continued globalisation. Even more expansive than his preceding project, the singer’s fourth studio album finds him digging his heel deeper into his roots, both musically and content-wise. ‘AG’ continues Burna’s dalliances with Caribbean Pop, Hip-Hop and R&B, but there’s a strong emphasis on Afrobeat and contemporary Afropop as the basis of his sound. Having made his claim to be the African Giant during his Coachella-related outburst, this musical direction was very fitting.
As with most albums running towards the hour-mark, ‘African Giant’ has its smidge of bloat, but the large bulk of it is consistently impressive, and the highs are overwhelming enough to position the LP as a myth-sealing body of work. Very often, we think of great albums as those with little to zero flaws, however, narratives and subsequent impact matter just as much as the music comprising the album. ‘AG’ was released to unanimous acclaim, further confirming that Burna Boy was operating on a gravity-defying plane. With scintillating love songs (“Gum Body” “Omo”), urgent and imperfect socio-political commentary (“Wetin Man Go Do” “Another Story”), and cuts celebrating heritage and accepting self (“African Giant” “Destiny”), ‘AG’ is evenly spread between displaying Burna’s now supreme musical gifts and situating him as an artist for the people.
Even with the multiple huge hits on ‘AG’, there’s no “YE” off the album, which is more of a testament to its reception as a full album – so far, the album has been streamed over a billion times – than an indictment of the mammoth singles released from it. Continuing his steady incline on a global scale, Burna Boy went on a yearlong tour, with stops in North America and Europe, including a sold-out affair at the London’s 12,000-capacity SSE arena. The cherry on top of this colourful sundae of critical acclaim and scale-breaking commercial impact came in November, when the Grammys announced that ‘African Giant’ was nominated for Best World Music album. In the truest sense of it, ‘African Giant’ is landmark album in the history of contemporary Afropop, the second and grandest layer yet of the mosaic that is Burna’s album showings.
Having already gone on back-to-back MVP runs, with arguably the best albums in each year, the rumour mill began to spin that Burna Boy was looking to attempt a 3-peat. He’d closed 2019 with the rather low-key release, “Money Play”, and kick-started 2020 with the well-received “Odogwu”, both singles celebrating the singer’s affluence and far-reaching influence. These songs were initial indicators of a festive direction, until the clearly gut-wrenching loss at the Grammys. Few months after Angelique Kidjo picked up the gramophone for a record fourth time, Burna Boy revealed via Twitter that the loss deeply upset him, but after personal reflection and speaking with the legendary Beninese singer, who dedicated her win to him, he’d picked his head up and begun working on his fifth studio album, ‘Twice As Tall’.
There’s something of a holding pattern to this album run, where each one is driven by a need to level up after some form of controversy or setback. ‘Twice As Tall’ followed and reupholstered that pattern in equal measure, an album where we saw Burna reconstruct his imperial persona over the course of fifteen remarkable songs that bind together to simultaneously humanise him and elevate his greatness even further. Much like the plot of a superhero movie, Burna turns his low point into a launch pad for a gilded showcase of self-assuredness, where emotional vulnerability and openness are the triggers for moments of clarity and triumph. In my opinion, it’s the strongest album Burna has made, in terms of making a resounding statement and a coherent sonic experience.
Co-executive produced by the legendary Sean Combs, ‘TAT’ continues Burna’s genre-blending antics, however, it leans the most on Afropop’s percussive innovation and Hip-Hop’s booming low-end. The music is aptly maximalist, standing tall and complementing the singer as he rebuilds his unassailable confidence, one indelible melody after the other. Where this sort of musical approach would swallow lesser vocal performers, Burna shows out once again, flaunting just how much of a Swiss army knife his voice is, from patois-inflected cadences, to rap flows and burly singing.
In a year where a pandemic shuttered public spaces for long periods, it was slightly difficult to wholesomely determine the magnitude of a hit song. At that, it seems fitting to deem “Wonderful” and “Way Too Big” as huge singles, going off their activity on streaming platforms. In the U.S., a market Burna and several of his peers are looking to crack, the singer debuted at the 55th spot of the Billboard Top 200 album charts, the highest debut position for an album by a Nigerian artist. The album also scored Burna his second consecutive nod for Best Global Album at the upcoming edition of the Grammys. For the third consecutive year, Burna put in another extraordinary shift, pulling out another album of the year contender and generating impact on a wide scale.
Of those last three years, though, the contention for Nigerian music’s MVP was its hottest. For the first time in a long while, the widely regarded big 3 – Wizkid, Davido and Burna – had solid shouts, each dropping well-received albums with multiple huge songs. While choices may vary according to the individual, it is worth noting that Burna Boy broke the MVP hegemony between his two peers in remarkable fashion, and he’s writing his legacy in the most wholesome way possible: building an undeniable discography.
Afropop is a hit singles market, but great albums have always been integral to mythologising artists. In the span of three years, Burna Boy has delivered three great albums, all of which could be considered classics, a feat that’s astonishing in and of itself. At this moment, there isn’t much indication as to what Burna’s intentions are for this year, but it’s irrefutable that, since his rebirth, he’s gone on a peerless creative run.
History is a tricky phenomenon. It is always unfolding right before our eyes, while also demanding that we take some time to evaluate the actual value of an occurrence. At the same time, though, there are some events that are too seismic to be left and revisited after a while. As far as contemporary African Pop music is concerned, Burna Boy has made history with the three album run of ‘Outside’, ‘African Giant’ and ‘Twice As Tall’. If he plans to keep going, that’s great; if he takes a break and closes this arc of his career, it will be immortalised as one of the greatest, elongated landmark moments in Afropop.
Featured Image Credits: NATIVE
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter