This is the first time in years that Burna Boy has not had something to prove but rather, something to say.
Burna Boy is an intriguing character. Perhaps the most intriguing ー and to be honest, human ー Nigerian popstar we’ve seen in a minute. No one evinces the duality of man or just how multifaceted we can be quite like he does. One minute he’s a supremely gifted and adoring singer, churning out sweet melodies or bangers that help lift the soul or other times, the sole. He even posits himself as an activist ー one who seemingly cares about the dire conditions that many find themselves in ー passionately crying out against oppression and speaking about the numerous ills of the nation; a Pan-African zealot who tries to sensitize whoever cares to listen that our history was whitewashed by colonizers. But the very next minute, he’s a despicable and inconsiderate character, one who kicked out a fan at a show in Atlanta, Georgia two years ago simply because “My brother, please, your face is not encouraging me.”
This dichotomy surely didn’t manifest recently. Since his breakthrough several years ago, announcing himself with the classic slow-burning “Like To Party”, he’s been a mixed bag, gracing the headlines for both good and bad reasons. As he released different spiffing records, many of which defined the zeitgeist at the time, proving time and time again that he was, and still is, one of the most versatile and talented act the country has seen in a long time, those records were also accompanied by different distasteful fracas. As time went on, his woes began to hinder his progress. There was almost a unified agreement, in many circles, that he was head and shoulders above many of his peers, talent-wise at least, but it wasn’t reflected in his status or advancement. It felt like the only person hindering Burna Boy was Burna Boy.
His troubles eventually retracted the spotlight and once all eyes looked elsewhere, he kept a low profile. He seemed to firmly place his focus on his music, quietly adding extra stones to his infinity gauntlet, slowly burning, waiting to once again explode like a Molotov. This explosion finally came in 2018 in the form of Outside, his third studio album, but particularly with the standout “Ye”, the monosyllabic anthem that took the country by storm and served as a reintroduction or rebirth of some sort. The years that followed will probably go down as arguably the greatest run from any Afropop act: sold-out shows in various venues across the globe, calling out Coachella and riding that wave to produce arguably his best body of work to date, one that earned him his first ever Grammy nomination, taking home the Grammy Award for Best Global Music Album the following year for Twice As Tall, that iconic show at The Garden and several other historic and remarkable feats. But once again, as Burna’s gospel spread and his mark became conspicuous, so did his troubles.
A couple of weeks before the release of Love, Damini, his highly anticipated sixth studio album, the singer was in the news again, this time for the wrong reasons. He was alleged to have been involved in a shooting in a night club in Lagos, one that left two men hospitalized. While he’s been widely celebrated for the past couple of years, both by his cult following and new fans, his recurring antics were beginning to frustrate and alienate a growing swath of his fanbase, at least anyone that cared to follow him closely. That’s why Love, Damini arrives at a slightly precarious time. A time that somewhat mirrors the months before his second coming. He looked like his troubles were beginning to tilt the scale once again, threatening to weigh him down like they once did. Coincidentally, or however you choose to view it, the album, which arrived days after he celebrated his 31st birthday, is his most personal, reflective and self-aware to date, the latter of which he could definitely use more of. This is the first time in years he’s not had something to prove but rather, something to say.
The album begins with a lot of pondering and reflection. After the legendary South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo open the record, delivering a short and sweet rendition both in English and their native language, Burna Boy steps in, musing about his formative years and painting a vivid, guttural picture of his time behind bars (I remember when they shipped me from the cans / To Chelmsford HMP and my celly had it bad / I had to have his back, niggas started fightin’ / And then they cut me on my hand / So I grabbed one from the back and I flung him off the landing / You know the screws get extra ruthless when you’re Black). Making your way from brawling with inmates to becoming the first Nigerian to sell out the famed Madison Square Garden is the stuff of dreams, one that can beget an ego as large as Burna’s. He never passes up the opportunity to let you know he went to the school of hard knocks. In a recent interview with Hip Hop personalities Wallo and Gillie Da King, he talks about how he had to earn everything good that has come his way. Nothing was ever handed to him. He shares a similar sentiment on the inspirational Khalid-assisted “Wild Dreams” (Come from a place where you can’t even sleep / Talk less of even dream it).
His path to the top, in part, might explain his various bouts of absurd behaviour and creeks of insecurity. One gets a sense that Burna feels like he’s had to plough a thornier and rougher path than many, and while there might be some truth to this, his biggest hindrance, at the end of the day, has always been himself. It’s however not lost on him that his seismic esteem gets in the way of things. On the extremely vulnerable lead single “Last Last”, he openly wrestles feelings of heartbreak, insecurity and pride with a searing candour over a clever sample of Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough”. Feelings that he’s partly able to admit got in the way of his last public relationship with British rapper and singer Stefflon Don.
When he’s not pondering or self-examining, he’s effortlessly coasting, sometimes even showing off, doing what he does best. On “Cloak & Dagger”, he brings J Hus out of hiding, trading bars and finding incredibly tight pockets over Telz’s slick, ominous drums with the Stratford rapper and singer. Tracks like “It’s Plenty”, the pre-released “Kilometer” and “Different Size” are Burna’s continued contribution to the dancefloor setlist. All three are extremely rhythmic and fun, begging for you to either catch a vibe or buss a whine. The love-inspired “For My Hand” and the J Balvin-assisted “Rollercoaster” are also noteworthy standouts, both tracks markedly highlighting the versatility of a man who could sound at home next to anyone.
At 19 tracks, Love, Damini could have done with a bit of trimming. Tracks like “Science”, “Common Person” and “Jagele” should have been left on the cutting-room floor, the latter especially sounding like remnants from the Grammy-nominated African Giant. One could even argue that “Whiskey” could have also been done away with. Not necessarily because it sounds bad or the message is wonky, in fact, the opposite is the case. But then it’s the token socio-political record here. A record that, when placed against the backdrop of his recent antics, is very questionable. Here lies the major issue with Burna Boy.
With the blistering passion with which he addresses several themes, you can deduce that, at the very least, he’s not only sentient and self-aware, but he also cares. It’ll be slightly ingenuous not to think he does. But as Dr Jekyll from Scottish Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous book Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde said “With every day and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and intellectual, i thus drew steadily to the truth….. that man is not only one but two”. Even Burna Boy expresses a similar sentiment on perhaps the most vulnerable track on the album, the schmaltz, titular closer. He admits a number of things, but most importantly he admits: “Trying to be a better man, I’ve been trying / I’ve got it all but i still got my anger / Been working hard trying to get rid of my anger”. Maybe the scales might eventually tilt against him, maybe they won’t, that’s not for me to predict or decide. What's certain, however, is what Love, Damini is: an intimate body of work crafted by a flawed virtuoso at the peak of his powers; a man who claims he’s trying to be better. The question then is: how long can you really try for?