On February 27th, finance publication Bloomberg Businessweek published a cover story on Mr. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. In the extensive profile, Mr. Dangote is portrayed as a man on his toes, intently making in-roads into other lucrative fields primed to increase his net worth exponentially.
As though on cue, Afrofusion auteur Burna Boy, released his debut single of 2019, “Dangote”, just two days after. In contrast to the typical use of affluent individuals as aspirational symbols in Nigerian pop culture, Burna’s “Dangote” casts the USD Billionaire in an aspirational light, not quite equating the scale of their hustles, but the humanising Mr Aliko Dangote’s grind with an often ignored, wistfully compelling narrative.
The melody and lyric interpolation of Fela’s “Palaver” on “Dangote”, reinforces points for originality. This isn’t the first time Burna is melding relatable quips reflecting the Nigerian mindset, a mid-tempo beat, and Fela samples into spellbinding alchemy. Runaway candidate for 2018 song of the year, “Ye”, features the same elements. Unlike rethreads which often come across like refixes, “Dangote” listens more like a companion piece to “Ye”.
Where “Ye” is more visceral, aptly so since it was recorded while Burna was reportedly faded at a popular Lagos nightclub, “Dangote” is sober and more pointed, evidenced by a gloriously executed video. The thread between them, though, is that they both have the indelible Burna signature.
On his 2017 NATIVE cover story, “Burna Reborn”, Burna’s description of his artistic process, which is essentially playing it by the ear, is curious and mystical. This narrative, “a mixture of vibes and feelings” as he says, is unassuming, but it is fitting for an artist with a musical intuition as strong and seemingly effortless as Burna’s. Although the refreshing mix of skill and spontaneity has been evident since grabbing national attention with 2011’s “Like to Party”, Burna cemented himself as the talent of his generation in 2018. From overeager Stans to the most critical cynics, he was the unanimous pick for the proverbial artist of the year crown.
In a year full of highlight reels, Burna started off with the January release his magnum opus, Outside. An ambitiously varied, stunningly executed record, Outside set an unmatched bar for Nigerian pop music in 2018. The success of “Ye” followed, a bonafide classic and chart-topping behemoth, further aided by nominal similarities with Kanye West’s eighth studio album, Ye. Seemingly unsatisfied, he’d added, “Gbona” and “On the Low” to his collection of chart-topping hits later in the year.
Burna took Outside on tour to sold out venues in the US and the UK, including a raved-about stop at the 5,000-capacity O2 Academy, Brixton. But it was his headlining show at the Eko Convention Centre, that mirrored just how dominant he’d become in the Nigerian music canon over the preceding twelve months. Pulling in assists from heavyweight colleagues like Wizkid, Davido and 2Face, it mattered less that Burna got on stage hours behind schedule, as he sealed his apotheosis with an awe-inspiring shift on the night.
Similar to the forward-pressing endeavours of “Dangote”, Burna clearly isn’t taking his foot off the gas, improving his chances at repeating last year’s feats or surpassing them even. Since the turn of the decade, consecutive Artist of the Year performances has been the exception, not the rule, meaning Burna is facing slightly higher odds this time around.
Two major factors considered, though, 2019 is set up to be another ace year for Burna. The first obvious indicator came at the third day of the year, out-of-the-blue, the confirmation of Burna’s Coachella set became the biggest news in music from Lagos to London. It’s unclear what resolves the ‘African giant’ has come to, but all evidence still points to Burna performing at Colorado Desert to a crowd of about 250,000 next month. Although the announcement was initially coloured by Burna’s comments font size, there are little doubts the Giant will deliver a memorable show given his touted stagecraft. This means there’s a huge 2019 Burna moment in waiting.
Secondly, there’s Burna’s range. As the prime purveyor of Afrofusion, Burna transcends specificity, his ability to transform within and between songs without losing a step, is the hallmark of an artist working with a deep bag of tricks. That and his loose model of making music should help retain durable freshness for subsequent releases. Which is perfect, because there are never any expectations for his music until its stuck on replay.
In a slowly shuffling year for Nigerian pop music hits, Burna has already laid down solid quality markers for his peers, with “Dangote” and “Killin Dem”, a kinematic collaboration with Zlatan from the closing days of last year. The consistency of the biggest brands in pop music is the key to the growth and survival of the adjacent popular culture. If Burna pulls off 2019 as predicted, Afropop will be witnessing a back-to-back annual dominance we haven’t seen since Wizkid’s 2013/2014/2015 — a campaign that peaked with a Grammy nomination via Drake’s “One Dance”. With ‘three albums worth of material’ on a hard drive somewhere according to the singer, there is no evidence Burna’s dominance will wane at any time this year. Be cynical at your own risk.