Burna Boy's groundbreaking win at the Grammys tonight is a testament to his undeniable position as an international musical force.
2020 asked many things of us; in a year fraught with an unusually high volume of catastrophic events, entertainers, entertainment, and pop culture actors have now, more than ever, proven to be highly potent forces for happiness and good in the world. With a focus on artistes (globally and locally), reactions to COVID and the limiting consequences of pandemic etiquette have been varied but largely mercurial. Quarantine-induced streaming and increased demand for content through digital channels served as the perfect anecdote, market, and motivation for 2020.
As in any market, the more established players found an easy route to the streaming demographic, with several anticipated releases delayed but ultimately executed In the US & UK. In Nigeria, the young label-backed upstarts have made great use of the pandemic, with acts like Rema and Omah Lay releasing well-received bodies of work alongside great marketing and endless online content. Nevertheless, all eyes remained squarely on the highest tier of the Nigerian music industry – the big three.
Davido’s A Better Time came three months after Burna Boy’s Twice as Tall and arrived to mixed critical reviews but expected commercial success. Stacked with several hits such as “Holy Ground” (with Nicki Minaj), “LaLa” (with CKay), and the alleged subliminal rebuttal of a lead single, “Fem”, the project was released against the backdrop of a developing feud between the long-time friends.
The mercurial Wizkid followed in the same vein. Spending the better part of last year teasing the release of his long-anticipated body of work, Made in Lagos, and eventually opting for a late-year release as well, he delivered the project to critical and commercial acclaim. His efforts on the immense Beyonce Lion King album earned him a second nomination in four years on an international feature.
However, drawing closer to the end of the year, Nigeria’s musical elite maintained the pre-pandemic status quo, showing an unsurprising preference for end-of-year releases. Most stars aim to power through the spectacled frenzy that is December in Lagos, Nigeria. Unfortunately, the pandemic threw the calendar into freefall, and the stakes changed. Without the cash cow ember month to be the decider, surely the music had to be the only metric of dominance?
African Giant was a milestone for many reasons; the new sonic approach Burna Boy was pioneering, the curation of the accompanying art, the numerous shows he played. Its title was self-explanatory and self-revealing – he’d attained the status he had sought since before Outside. Any character flaw brought to the fore was shrugged off inconsequentially – star status. 2019 was the most successful year in his career, critically and commercially, culminating at the Grammy’s in January where Angelique Kidjo beat him out. None of this seemed to deter the master plan. A slew of singles and several guest appearances separated the two albums, and a little over a year later, Twice as Tall was upon us.
The 15-track statement piece from Burna Boy could not have arrived at a more crucial time. Fresh off what many would consider a loss, he mostly stuck with the same formula that earned him a Grammy nod and reinforced his position as Africa’s premier crossover artist.
On “23”, the album’s 10th track, Burna Boy sings, “Music make me feel I be Jordan” and rightly so, if any observers are objective. With Twice as Tall being his fifth full-length LP, he seems to be riding an endless performance peak. Straight off the back of the hugely successful, Grammy-nominated African Giant, Burna doubled down on his elite status with Twice as Tall, in what is arguably his most cohesive body of work. Many believe Outside to be his most superior LP (this writer inclusive), and for a good reason; the three-peat that has earned him critical acclaim for two straight years started from that project. By an insane stroke of luck, the album’s lead single, “Ye”, shared a title with Kanye West’s eighth studio album released in the same year. Many believe the coinciding searches did a lot for his then dwindling visibility. Still, one thing is certain: ever since Outside, his position in Africa’s class of world-class superstars has remained unshaken.
On many tracks from Twice as Tall, Burna shows us just why he is The African Giant. The album, recorded entirely in Lagos as informed by its press release, had many bright musical spots and moments to unpack. Still, beyond those, its thematic consistency, production, and execution were stand out. Much credit is owed to the star’s management and production roster.
Like many great albums, Twice as Tall can be listened to in bits and pieces; this is an end objective evident with the format attempted through the album’s tracklisting and arrangement. Topically, Burna Boy touches on his recently achieved global-popstar status, friendships, past relationships, nostalgic nods to his hometown, and then closes by giving us the delightful slice of musical genius that is “Bank On It” as the album wraps up. In addition to this, Twice as Tall is also well decorated with impressive collaborations from a meticulously curated list of artists who all seemed to conceptually understand the album, performing at similar levels to Burna and, in some cases, even better. (See: Stormzy on “Real Life”)
With the 15 tracks on Twice as Tall, the album is conveniently split into three equal measures, considering sub-themes across the overarching idea of being “Twice as Tall”. At the album’s protasis, Burna teams up with the legendary Youssou N’Dour, opening up on his disappointment from the last Grammys, inspiring listeners to ”Level Up” and then wake up with “Alarm Clock”. On the rhythmic “Bebo”, he sings: “What you gonna do when I get back? I left and you thought you could trespass,” letting everyone know he’s back and coming for it all. The album’s first act then ends with its lead single, “Wonderful”.
Though Burna is not as impressive or aggressive on the album’s second act, he does just enough through two stand-out tracks that carry us easily into its swan song. On "No Fit Vex” (the album’s hustler’s anthem), Burna Boy unleashes a catchy melody with lyrics alluding to peace and love while wishing for success towards current and past friends. It is also rightly produced by one of his earliest collaborators – the 40 to his Drizzy – Leriq. On “23”, Burna is at peace and relays to listeners that his greatness is undeniable; it’s an early victory lap.
Twice as Tall’s finale hosts the bulk of its features, with Burna Boy flexing the strength of his friendships and relationships. Sauti Sol delivers a smooth Pan-African performance on the tune “Time Flies”, while Burna immerses himself in his ballad bag. Chris Martin shows up on “Monsters You Made”, holding his own and delivering an emotional hook fit for the current clime of the Black Lives Matter movement and African liberation. The mood of this final third is somber, serious, and reflective, as is evident with the closers, “Wetin Dey Sup”, “Real Life” and “Bank On It”.
Through this three-track roller coaster, Burna continues to push the envelope of what it is to make intentional music, whether through his writing, singing, or music arrangement. “Bank On It” is mentioned for the third time in this article, and with good reason: this is Burna Boy at his absolute confident and introspective best. The JAE5 produced track begins with Burna soulfully crooning what simultaneously sounds like confessions to a priest, a prayer to God, and a conversation with his therapist. It then beautifully transitions into the song’s body, where he mixes levity with solemnity. In one breath, he cheekily claims he’s called Bankole because there’s a bank on him, and in the next, he reminds us of our impending doom and ultimate mortality. A choral performance echoes ethereally through the track, and it closes out with an uncredited powerful vocal performance complementing the choral team. If any specific song on the album could win Burna Boy a Grammy, it would be this one.
Overall, this album is unlike any effort we’ve seen from Nigeria’s pop class. Typically, artistes that make more “conscious”, conceptual bodies of work don’t receive much commercial attention. However, with Twice as Tall, Burna Boy plays a remarkable hand, showing that there is little need for the compromise of trading sonic excellence for quality content. No album is perfect, and there are always ways to execute ideas, but I wouldn’t change a thing on this project. Burna Boy has raised the bar with this release, and all eyes are now squarely on his counterparts in the upper echelon of Nigeria’s music scene. Receiving validation for phenomenal efforts in any craft may not count for much; they are not an absolute metric by any measure. The Weeknd secured his multiple RIAA certifications and global appeal for his After Hours album. Yet, the project is missing from any of the usual categories the pop superstar inhabits. The Best Rap Album category has been derided for years for the lack of representation for the genre’s broad spectrum but has received some appreciation for their inclusion of more traditional rap projects this cycle. There are several reasons why there’s been a call for democratization in spaces such as the Recording Academy. The merits of true representation could one day legitimize the intentions of ceremonies like the Grammys towards acts that perhaps do not meet the arbitrary standards of the Academy but are sonically deserving of recognition. The induction of several black and brown music industry professionals into the Academy in the last three years points to potentially groundbreaking changes in such spaces that could one day create an award system based on merits and message.
Burna Boy winning the award tonight not only legitimizes the placement of diversity in predominantly white spaces but also marks the crystallization of his efforts. Once seen as more trouble than his music was worth, Burna has risen to levels simply impossible to ignore. Commanding audiences and a following that rival other global artists, his rise has shone a light on the range of talents that occupy our shores while providing real opportunities for many such artists. The win only multiplies this effect exponentially. The most important part of this conversation is raising the bar so younger acts can surpass the mediocre benchmarks of their predecessors – this win does that. Seeing people who look and sound like you being revered in societies beyond ours reinforces every dream or hope tenfold. If the bar is winning a Grammy, then we will make music that wins Grammys, or at least that can.
Featured Image credit: BSide Mag, Daniel Obasi