Burna Boy has always been self-aware. In the first verse of ‘Tonight,’ one of his earliest singles released in 2012, he affirms his alpha-maleness, singing along the lines of ‘see, I dey see your woman, and I dey hold my woman, and I be real magician, I fit to get your woman’.
This machismo, cockiness, and self-assuredness has been a mainstay in Burna Boy’s music career, within and away from the studio. It is why he walked out of the arena when he lost out at the Headies in 2013. It is what has made him an enigma of sorts, and it is the reason he attracts divided opinion in the Nigerian music-consuming community. Detractors are quick to point out his ‘arrogance’, but the quality of his craft has spoken even louder for him over the years.
Barely a year after the release of African Giant – which had a critical and commercial success, and which earned the Port Harcourt-born star a Grammy nomination – Burna Boy put out another album, Twice as Tall, made available with much fanfare to the public on August 14. On this new project, he enlists the help of his mother Bose Ogulu and American media mogul P. Diddy as executive producers. He also reaches out to longtime collaborator Leriq and the sound-weaving Rexxie to anchor the direction of the sound.
Things get off to a flyer with ‘Level Up,’ whose opening sequence features a sample of Pat Boone’s ‘Twice as Tall’ refrain. Here, Burna Boy, admits to the hurt occasioned by narrowly missing out on the 2020 Grammy for Best World Music, as evidenced in the lyrics ‘I remember when I couldn’t level up/’cause the Grammys had me feeling sick as f***/throwing up and shit/asking questions like ‘why it wasn’t us’?’ This is the pathos on which the album rides, and while the chemistry is debatable, Youssour N’Dour’s vocals serve up the atmosphere needed for a 53-minute-long musical journey.
‘Alarm Clock’ could be compared to a muezzin’s cry of sorts, with P. Diddy supplying ad-libs that hint at unity and Black love. The tempo goes up three notches higher with ‘Way Too Big,’ where Burna Boy in all his braggadocio asserts his status as a top dog amidst clever references like ‘I bring the thunder like Muri’ and ‘used to roll with the Shank just like Julie/still Pop can because I’m unruly/took my place as the shine shine bobo of the Nigerian brewery’.
Damini Ogulu loves drinks and laughter, and that’s the general idea of ‘Bebo’. He is also about working hard and musical appreciation, and in ‘Wonderful’ he name-drops Nigerian investment banker. Adebayo Ogunlesi with festive percussions in the background. ‘Onyeka’ is a romantic-themed highlife tune whose title is drawn from the name of one of the country’s music legends, and while the lyrics are somewhat cheesy, the song would fit into a playlist that includes Phyno’s ‘Iwa’ and Flavour’s ‘Baby Oku’.
Burna Boy idolised Naughty By Nature while growing up, and on the song that goes by the name of the group, he succeeds in getting all three members on one track while singing about mischief from his younger years, sampling their ‘Jamboree’ classic. There is a huge sense of rhythm in ‘Comma,’ a pacy song whose lyric ‘with your fake breast, with the silicon, I dey see comma there/your booty/and your leg so slim/I dey see comma there’ may be viewed as sexist by more than a few.
‘No Fit Vex’ is an ode to friendship, hustle and getting by in spite of difficult conditions. In an album that is largely rendered in first-person, this rings differently. It is tinged with a little introspection, and it is one of this project’s strongest points. ‘23’ has Burna Boy using Michael Jordan as a metaphor for his own greatness, and is probably the track that bears testimony of Leriq’s sound-mixing prowess. Sauti Sol hands in a decent contribution on ‘Time Flies,’ a song that attempts to blend the sonics of Sade’s ‘Sweetest Taboo’ and Marc Anthony’s ‘I Need You,’ and where vocals take priority over penmanship.
Burna Boy’s politics has always been subjected to scrutiny, and he was almost chided for ‘victim-blaming’ when, in ‘Collateral Giant’ – off last year’s effort – he suggested that Nigerians were their own problems with the lyrics ‘my people sef dey fear too much/we fear the thing we no see’. Thirteen months down the line, he makes a U-turn with his rhetoric, acknowledging on ‘Monsters You Made,’ whose hook is delivered by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, that ‘the heads of state ain’t comprehending the hate/that the oppressed generate/when they’ve been working like slaves to get some minimum wage/you turn around and you blame them for their anger and rage…’
There will be controversy with ‘Wetin Dey Sup,’ whose opening lyrics ‘I no be one of those men wey dear fear toto f**k nyansh’ hints at homophobia, though the expression is part of colloquial verbiage in South-South Nigeria and represents a metaphor for being unafraid. The track itself is gritty in nature and, amidst gunshots and sirens. It is heavily reminiscent of ‘Run My Race’ – off Burna Boy’s first album L.I.F.E. With emphasis on being ready for danger, it could pass for a street anthem.
Stormzy is content with singing the hook in ‘Real Life,’ which emphasises on self-belief and focus on what’s important. The album closes out in style with ‘Bank on It,’ wherein Burna Boy admits to being vulnerable and prays for protection from enemies.
The ambition of Twice as Tall, particularly with respect to award aspirations and a wider acceptance of Afro-fusion, is apparent from the moment the album’s listening time begins to run. The collaborations are intentional, the musical arrangement is deliberate, and the lyricism provides ‘space’ for the sonics to find expression and thrive, compared to the density of ‘African Giant.’
While it should be acknowledged that Burna Boy does a good job in balancing the musical needs of his Nigerian – while widening his genre for Western – audiences, it needs to be said, however, that the artistry of his music may have taken a tiny step back. The production is stellar in all respects, but his writing may have suffered a little, with a few songs having to accommodate a little corniness to fit into the general narrative. The themes are clear enough, but the storytelling of the album struggles for coherence at some point. His previous albums ‘Outside’ and ‘African Giant’ were pretty fluid in terms of creative direction; that is not the case here.
Twice as Tall is not without its flaws, but it does not fail in its overall objective. It is less fun and will have fewer hits compared to its predecessor. But it is a memorable body of work, nonetheless. In the opening track, Burna Boy claims to be a ‘motherf****ng legend’, and while he still has his work cut out in doing justice to that assertion, he is no longer far off.
Jerry Chiemeke is an award winning writer, culture and lawyer
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