The Nigerian singer blends the personal and political into a new benchmark of Afro-fusion music.
The music spread across West Africa’s many cultures have been frequently miscategorized, lumped together under the racist “world music” banner, or altogether ignored. There are still mix-ups surrounding Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat and the current umbrella pop genre Afrobeats.
Somewhere in between the not-so-ambiguous space of that “s” is Nigerian cross-pollinator Burna Boy. His grandfather was Kuti’s manager, his dad introduced him to the music of deejay Super Cat and dancehall great Buju Banton when he was a kid, and a girl he liked at 10 gave him his first Joe CD, initiating a love of America R&B and subsequently rap. He is a musical omnivore who left Nigeria to live and learn in London but never strayed too far from home.
Burna Boy is one of West Africa’s brightest rising stars, and he has long been poised for a crossover moment here in the States, but his position on the Coachella billing earlier this year illustrated a disparity between who he is in Africa and who he is in America. “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means,” he wrote on Instagram. The memo was loud and clear: Africa will not be marginalized. When his mother accepted, on his behalf, the award for BET’s Best International Act (an ill-defined category that reinforces just how noncommittal we are as a society about most non-white imported music), she reminded an audience full of black musicians that they are part of a larger whole: “The message from Burna, I believe, would be that every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.”
This idea of tracing all blackness back to the wellspring is the crux of Burna Boy’s new album, African Giant; his mother’s words, sampled from the BET speech, are the last ones spoken on the album. Burna’s compositions are all based in something he’s dubbed Afro-fusion—blending pop, American hip-hop and R&B, Jamaican dancehall, and hard UK rap with Nigerian music—and he puts Africa at the root of that expanding lineage while also pushing the more traditional sounds forward. The album is a splendid hour of jams, both personal and political, that never sacrifices its bewitching groove even when it’s dressing down corrupt officials. African Giant is more cohesive, more robust in sound, and significantly broader than his previous music. He siphons external sounds to enhance the shape and texture of his homegrown slappers. Last year’s Outside made a play for Western audiences in the wake of Burna’s cameo on Drake’s More Life. There’s still a sense of that here but the hybridist isn’t making any concessions for such audiences. The music reaches across the diaspora because his sound has a unifying power. It starts with Africa first, then extends outward. While he used English frequently before, here he sings primarily in Pidgin, Yoruba, and Igbo and pulls guests from all over into his distinctive polyrhythmic world: Nigeria’s Zlatan and Ghana’s M.anifest, Angélique Kidjo, reggae legend Damian Marley and dancehall singer Serani, Jorja Smith in the UK, across the Atlantic with Jeremih, YG, and Future. He described leading the latter two into Afro-fusion as “bringing my brothers home.”
This musical Garveyism produces two of African Giant’s most massive moments. On “Show & Tell,” Burna meets Future halfway, exchanging tough talk as the flavor of his melodies seeps into the rapper’s Auto-Tune. The buoyant sway has all but taken hold when suddenly the song bottoms out into something darker and unpredictable. The Jeremih and Serani-assisted stunner “Secret” melts swaggering Naija pop into an R&B slow burner, the washed-out guitars rolling over Burna as he drifts into a refined falsetto.
Elsewhere, Burna is at his best either holding it down at home or tracing African influence beyond its shores. He trades blows with Zlatan on “Killing Dem,” each hyping up the other. He secured a guest appearance from premier African diva Angélique Kidjo on “Different” with Damian Marley, in which they sing about the similarities and disparities of black suffering. Burna and Marley’s verses mirror each other, structurally and melodically, rising and crashing, building to a surging Kidjo coda. In his lyrics, Burna uncovers how rampant corruption inspired personal study. “Differently intelligent … Different studying of my roots and origin/Tell my truth in melodies.”
While Burna Boy takes his position within the expansive and nuanced musical legacy of Africa, he probes Nigeria’s turbulent history. He can’t really be an African giant without speaking truth to power, after all, and he spends much of the album breaking down the narratives that have surrounded Nigeria since it gained independence in 1960. No sequence embodies this better than the two-pronged economic evaluation of “Wetin Man Go Do” and “Dangote”; the brutal nature of a life making ends meet is put shoulder-to-shoulder with the unrepentant drive of billionaires (the song is named after the Nigerian business tycoon Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa). If the Nigerian elite won’t stop amassing wealth, Burna suggests, then he can’t slow down in his pursuit of money either. He comes off both impressed by their appetites and anxiously aware of an expanding fiscal imbalance. In instances like these, Burna Boy juggles roles as an everyman, local griot, global ambassador, party-starter, and occasional badmon with ease.