By Emeka K. Okereke
There is so much to be admired about Burna Boy’s sixth and newest studio album, Twice As Tall, beyond its musical feat. If one considers a musical album an artistic body of work, there is much to be said about form and content as much as where it sits in the articulation of its time. In other words, what it attempts to achieve in the way of historical correlations, political consciousness, self-awareness/affirmation and socio-cultural positioning.
One underpinning character of this album is the unconventional collaborations which span different musical era and genres. For example, on the first track, “Level Up,” which features Senegalese and international singer Youssou N’dour, thoughts and questions that rummaged in my mind on hearing the song was how were they able to make such a collaboration come to fruition? How did Burna Boy bring Youssou N’dour to see his vision for the track? Why Youssou N’dour in the first place?
You will forgive me for getting carried away by these thoughts when you listen to the track. It starts out unpredictably with a sampling of what seems like folk-blues. It then blends into piano chords that further transitioned into a dancehall-like beat on which Burna’s singing takes flight. The next aberration was the sudden break into Youssou’s melodious high-pitched singing. In one song, there is a concerted attempt to meander myriad corridors of melodies, genres, and historical references.
Burna Boy’s apparent intention to experiment with new sounds and musical forms, while keeping within safe parameters of his already successful, if not comfortable, musical zone cannot be lost on anyone who listens to the album all the way to the last track.
Do a first run-through of the album, you will get a sense that he is bent on building on the sociopolitical awareness that he was only confident to fully embrace in his previous album African Giant. His voice is stronger, more assured and in control. This musical aplomb also morphs into the beats, and despite the ingenious roaster of producers, still keep a low profile thereby risking being somewhat ordinary or at best familiar.
My take is that this is highly intentional, or better still a logical direction coming out of his previous album, African Giant. He is reveling in the potency of his voice like a superhero who just mastered his powers. Now, he wants his voice not only to be heard but to be reckoned with. He is saying: music is a conveyor of something more potent — my subjectivity, my sense of being in the world. If there is any validity to my deductions, this new album is a cementing of a turf that has been a long time in the making.
A loose prediction: his next album will see more experimentation; more deviation from the sound, and perhaps form, he is known for. I say this because, this album, more than the previous, hints at the extent to which he is willing and able to venture into deep waters.
Burna Boy is at the forefront of a generation of Nigerian and other African musical artists who are confident to dream beyond the confines of “African” genres. He has camouflaged this inclination under the genre he calls Afro-fusion-so vague it could mean nothing or anything.
It might come off as paradoxical that Burna Boy often speaks of Africa as being the motherland and home base, while venturing—deeper and further with every new release—into collaborations across genres and artistes. Yet, why he is so much of a formidable force is that he flips this notion of Africa unto itself and then outwards. He is an embodiment of what I ‘d describe as “seeing Africa as the shore from which we permeated and continue to permeate the world”.
Burna Boy is reveling in the potency of his voice like a superhero who just mastered his powers. Now, he wants his voice not only to be heard but to be reckoned with. He is saying: music is a conveyor of something more potent — my subjectivity, my sense of being in the world. If there is any validity to my deductions, this new album is a cementing of a turf that has been a long time in the making.
In Twice As Tall, Burma Boy also teams up with acclaimed American hip hop duo Naughty By Nature, but also Chris Martin of the famed English pop-rock band Coldplay. In Time Flies, he combines forces with the Kenyan group Sauti Sol. Yet like his collaboration with Coldplay—underscored by its root-reggae feel, he goes off-road with the choice of the underlining beat: an unmistakable sampling of Sade Adu’s 1983 hit song, Smooth Operator.
What Burna Boy has got going on, therefore transcends the impulsive urge to dish out repetitive musical beats such as is the case in the African music scene of today. We are conscientised to the myriad journeys happening with and in his music. The recurring position is that 21st century Africa is a story of journeys the length, breadth and depth of which are yet to be seen by the world.
It is important to note that his collaborations are measured and thoughtful with a traceable genealogy. Besides the knack to veer off the road and spin an element of surprise or curiosity on the listener, there is a pattern which somewhat feels like he is digging into vinyl crates of songs that informed his childhood, upbringing. Something we could call a constructive way of looking back into one’s past — the kind of looking back necessary for going forward. He pays homage to the past from which he came into being while assuming a tentacular, almost unrestrictive approach to being in the present.
On twitter, some are already speculating on what songs will be the “club banger”. That’s a hard-pressed one if you ask me. While the beats are laid back and to some extent too simple for my liking, Twice As Tall is indeed an album that is bound to grow on the listener. Something tells me that Burna Boy has tailored this one not only for his die-hard fans but also for those who are willing to take his word — more than the acrobatic exploits of his beats — for it.
Emeka K. Okereke is a Nigerian visual artist, who also describes himself as an hyphenate. He is based in Germany.