Burna Boy: An African Giant Becomes ‘Twice as Tall’ on Celebratory and Socially Conscious New Album
When Burna Boy released last year’s widely acclaimed “African Giant,” he lived up to its superlative title. The album made history with 20 million streams, the highest for any African album in history. Already a proven giant, he takes a natural next step with a followup titled “Twice as Tall.” Burna Boy has brought the sounds of his native Nigeria to millions worldwide, serving as a bona fide musical ambassador. Mixing traditional Afrobeat stylings, consisting of dancehall, pop, R&B, and hip-hop, he serves up an Afro-fusion sound that manages to strike a chord globally, while uncompromisingly focusing on a particular culture. Burna Boy won Best International Act at the 2019 BET Awards, as well as a nomination for Best World Music Album at the 62nd Grammys, which drew a torrent of criticism from a public that considered him the deserved winner. For his latest work, he teams up Diddy, who plays the role of executive producer. The new songs are festive, unwaveringly positive, socially conscious, culturally rich, and full of verve.
Opener “Level Up (Twice as Tall)” begins with an outlandishly old-fashioned sing-along sampled from the 1959 film “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” A beat drops, and Burna Boy enters, singing in his distinctive Nigerian dialect, with such manners of phrasing as “you haffi shut the devil up.” The song is about keeping one’s head high and overcoming adversity, a message that the buoyant music would convey even without the lyrics. Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, an originator of the regional dance music genre known as mbalax, contributes a spirited, uplifting chorus, starting the album off on a radiant, beaming note. Diddy offers some platitudes in the end, and continues speaking into the next track, “Alarm Clock,” whereupon an exhilarating free jazz backdrop and operatic crescendo properly set the album off, erupting into a festive, syncopated beat. Burna Boy switches between Yoruba and English, calling everyone to embrace the day.
The music is consistently sprightly and upbeat. On “Way Too Big,” pitch-shifted vocal stutters retrofit Afrobeat rhythms for a trendy dancefloor, as Burna Boy downsizes his problems in giddy Auto-tune indulgence, and gives way to blaring, psychedelic guitars. Burna Boy balances his broad accessibility with unabashed cultural specificity. “Bebo” gets its name from a Nigerian slang for something of a cheapskate, and finds Burna Boy singing mostly in Yoruba, playfully poking fun at the object in an insistent chorus, over percussion so effortlessly off the grid that it could only come from Africa. Lead single “Wonderful” effectively encapsulates the joyful spirit of the album. Burna Boy marvels at the wonders of bringing music to the world, and celebrates Africa as the cradle of humankind, with regional chants, another razor-sharp beat, and gleeful horns.
You can hear the spirit of Fela Kuti, especially on tracks where horns make their way in, for instance “Onyeka (Baby).” On this idiosyncratic love song, Burna Boy compares the object of his intrigue to Nigerian singer and activist Onyeka Onwenu, and references the highlife hit “Osondi Owendi” by another Nigerian artist, Osadede. Burna Boy’s songs are rich with references that serve as an entry point for international audiences delving into Nigerian culture. “Naught by Nature” is a standout track, as it actually features rap group Naughty by Nature, still at it after all these years. They deliver their lines with a camp, old school enthusiasm over hand drums that make for a thrilling sensory overload. Burna Boy doesn’t hesitate to get esoteric on tracks like “Comma,” based on a Nigerian slang for a caveat that he goes to town with, spinning the term into a wealth of meaning in another Auto-Tune extravaganza.
The lingo keeps coming on “No Fit Vex,” which translates roughly to “no hard feelings,” and finds Burna Boy as positive as always, gliding through melodies with a cool ease that matches the sentiment of the song, over colorful dancehall instrumentation. “23” returns to themes from “Wonderful,” about celebrating success in music, this time comparing the resulting feeling of invincibility to the mythos surrounding Michael Jordan, and his famous number 23. Burna Boy goes beyond Nigeria, taking on Pan-African proportions on “Time Flies,” featuring Kenyan band Sauti Sol. There’s a natural chemistry to the collaboration, with the band fleshing out Burna Boy’s instincts, and presenting a panoramic and colorful sound. A multitude of voices, ranging from smooth soulful falsetto to cartoony baritone make for an especially festive track. The end features a spoken segment from Burna Boy’s mother, who notes, “Black people are turning the tables, taking back our place / We will be heard because we matter,” a message more relevant now than ever.
This segues neatly into the most socially conscious track yet, “Monsters You Made,” which calls attention to the sustained injuries resulting from a history of imperialist injustice. The chorus features none other than Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who sounds right in his element, considering the penchant for world music and focus on global justice that has characterized much of his work in recent years. Martin’s unmistakable voice adds a new dimension to Burna Boy’s sound, and the music takes a reggae turn that effectively captures the subject matter. The social focus continues on “Wettin Dey Sup,” which translates to “how are you doing,” but uses the deceptively simple title to shine a light on dark truths of humanity. Burna Boy reflects, “They only respect the money and the violence,” with a lighthearted tone and musical backdrop that soften the burden of the lyrical weight. Timbaland is on production duties, and while the track doesn’t feature any of his trademark stamps, it runs with a crispness consistent with his output.
UK rapper Stormzy makes an appearance on “Real Life,” but sings rather than raps, contributing an unassuming hook that picks up on Burna Boy’s instincts, and makes for a reflective pause in an album full of celebratory spirit. Burna Boy lingers in this contemplative space on the closer, “Bank On It.” It turns out that he happened to be staying just down the road from where the late Pop Smoke met his end, a reality that inspired a meditation on the uncertainty of fate and a humble appreciation of life at large.
On “Twice as Tall,” Burna Boy continues to help put Nigeria on the map, celebrating the country’s culture and introducing it to the rest of the world through its native slang and dialect, references to its praised figures and institutions, and of course, its musical heritage. The album stands out for its committed positivity, with every song ringing like a celebration. Burna Boy begins with standard Afrobeat stylings, letting his songs take shape around driving, syncopated beats, and venturing freely into a variety of sonic avenues, with dancehall, pop, hip-hop, and R&B all making their way into the mix. In spite of all their lighthearted spirit, the songs tackle considerably weighty subject matter, with an incisive social focus. Ultimately, however, Burna Boy always emerges smiling, with a mix of cool composure and gleeful revelry perfectly suited for the festive, mobilizing music that accompanies it.
“Twice as Tall“ is available Aug. 13 on Apple Music.