The Nigerian superstar’s latest LP can feel heavy under the weight of his personal reflection and pan-African crusade. It is a load worth carrying.
As a child, like many children, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu was fascinated by superhero comics. He wanted to be his own superhero, so he named himself Burna Boy, a moniker that has followed him into a career as one of the defining musical acts of today’s African diaspora. Last November, after his fourth studio album African Giant permeated the summer from Abuja to Brooklyn, he sold out London’s Wembley Arena. Now, just a year after African Giant, Burna returns with Twice as Tall, and with it, a more resonant origin story—one that explains his ascent from 2018’s breakthrough single “Ye.” In an accompanying motion comic, the Yoruba deity Orunmila chooses Burna to embody his “secret flame.” With it, Burna is challenged to restore the gods’ faith in humanity. He meets these Black gods again, in 2020, his mission completed through his resounding success. “You make music passionately, like you are waging a war,” one tells him, proudly.
Twice as Tall is Burna’s battle cry. Compared to 2018’s jovial Outside and last year’s sunnily conscious African Giant, Twice as Tall can feel heavy under the weight of Burna’s personal reflection and Pan-African crusade. His newly moody Afro-fusion—a mix of afrobeat, reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, EDM, and more—amplifies his passion. Twice as Tall could’ve aimed to crystalize Burna’s position as a global Afropop star with easier, feel-good hits. Instead, he turns starkly inward, assuring himself of his power, and outward, reminding the world of its failures and its potential. It is a load worth carrying.
Burna Boy lost the 2020 Grammy for Best World Music Album to celebrated Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, an idol and collaborator. Despite his reverence for her, the loss sickened him, as he recounts on album opener “Level Up.” As Burna—whose humility here is admirable—lists times that he’s felt small, he initiates the familiar, satisfying arc of the hero’s journey. Over Anderson .Paak’s menacing drums on “Alarm Clock,” Burna issues a warning in light Pidgin English: You’ll discover that I’m really unstoppable. The somber synths of “Way Too Big” sound like a hike up Mount Olympus. Twice as Tall is marked by Burna’s pride in his hustle, his confidence in his path, and his faith that he is favored by the divine. It’s littered with pleas to God, rebukes of the Devil, and prayers that his trek to victory will be uninterrupted. As the album ends, he and UK rapper and singer Stormzy offer a peaceful, self-assured balm with “Real Life,” before Burna settles into the might and limits of being merely human on “Bank on It.”
While Burna uses the album opener to meditate on his own capacity for greatness, he reveals grander ambitions than riches and relaxation, or even personal fulfillment. He’s on a mission to fold in all corners of the diaspora, bridging colonial ruptures to illuminate a common struggle. When the album was nearly complete, Burna enlisted Diddy as an executive producer, alongside himself and his mother, Bosede Ogulu. Diddy supplies his experience as an American music mogul and adds narration that neatly stitches tracks together. “We from the same tribe. It’s Black love,” he says at the top of “Alarm Clock.” On “Monsters You Made,” Burna rages about structural violence and the ways it breeds interpersonal harm, as well as protest. He pulls at the thread that connects all oppressive regimes, from the post-war Nigeria that radicalized his hero Fela Kuti to the modern United States. With a hook from Coldplay’s Chris Martin and bombastic production that evokes an Imagine Dragons single, the song smuggles one of Burna’s most radical political messages into a record that could top the modern rock charts.
The pensive tone of Twice as Tall may throw off fans of Burna’s more danceable tracks, but “Wonderful,” “Onyeka (Baby),” “Naughty by Nature,” and “Comma” offer reprieve from the album’s focus and fury, bringing the levity to an impressive mid-album stretch. Here, Burna indulges. Sure, “Onyeka” is inspired by Nigerian diva and activist Onyeka Onwenu, who hosted a striking BBC documentary about government corruption in Nigeria and was subsequently banned from seven of the country’s 36 states—but it’s really just a scampish love song. On “Naughty by Nature,” he enlists the titular rap trio, whose 1993 hit “Hip Hop Hooray” was the first song he learned word-for-word. “Comma” is the party anthem, akin to African Giant’s “Killin Dem,” and Burna has the time of his life making light of sticky situations and women’s cosmetic procedures.
In an archival interview featured in Alex Gibney’s documentary on Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat trailblazer says, “As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment, music has to be for revolution.” Of course, Kuti’s music was widely enjoyed, but it was also complex and challenging. On his latest LP, Burna Boy leans into this aspect of the icon’s mythos. Twice as Tall advances Burna’s political vision, and is frankly less fun than the two recent projects that catapulted him to superstardom. But the world is less fun than it was a year ago, too. Society could use a hero, a godsend. Pairing rhythms that possess the hips with encouraging calls for Black unity and an infectious sense of self-reliance, Twice as Tall is Herculean.
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