The world of music often neglects large parts of the planet where great songs are made, for beyond the English-speaking parts of the globe, superstars rise and fall with little notice. In Nigeria, one such musician is climbing toward his summit. Reggae-ish artist Burna Boy released his fourth album, “African Giant,” to some critical acclaim. Does he have what it takes to cross over?
Burna Boy is a major star in Nigeria. He entered the music world with the 2013 dancehall album “L.I.F.E.” and lead single “Like to Party.” In his home country, his 2018 album, “Outside,” and song “Ye” were respectively named the best album and biggest song of the year. As of late, Burna Boy has been gaining traction stateside. He appears on Fall Out Boy’s “MANIA” and Beyonce’s “Lion King: The Gift” compilation, in addition to a Coachella performance.
Earlier this year, Burna Boy demonstrated the gap between fame in and out of the States. He complained that the Coachella advertisements undersold his stardom by making his name too small. While Burna Boy isn’t exactly a household name for the average Coachella attendee, he has worked longer, and likely harder, than several on his tier.
NGHTMRE and Clairo did not have full albums out at the time, and SOB X RBE released their first mixtape in 2017. Burna Boy already had three full albums, an EP and two mixtapes dating as far back as 2011 at the time.
Burna Boy may have a point; artists with huge fanbases and high acclaim outside the English-speaking world sometimes get little respect within. According to Best Ever Albums’ compilation of thousands of best-ever lists, 196 of the 200 highest-rated albums ever are from majority English-speaking countries, mostly the United States and United Kingdom.
The other four are “Discovery” by Daft Punk (French), “Homogenic” by Björk (Icelandic), “Ágætis byrjun” by Sigur Rós (Icelandic) and “Tago Mago” by Can (German) — all but Sigur Rós performing in English. Of over 4,800 Top 10 singles, Billboard records 19 not in English. “African Giant” could prove to be his vindication if he delivers his most personal album yet, as promised to Billboard.
Burna Boy has a wide lyrical range. Romance, politics, bragging, triumph, Nigerian pride and economic insecurities all weigh on his mind. As a lover, Burna Boy is suave and tender, but never desperate or overemotional. He resembles soul singer Barry White with less sentimentality.
As a fighter, Burna Boy exudes strength and wisdom. He deals plainly with day-to-day toil and the effects of colonialism in Nigeria, seeming neither brash nor cowed. When Burna Boy claims his “Destiny” as an “African Giant,” he claims his birthright.
For non-African audiences, the lyrics on “African Giant” can sometimes be difficult to understand. Burna Boy writes largely in pidgin English and the Nigerian language of Yoruba, while frequently referencing his homeland’s culture. “Omo” is named for Nigerian model/actress Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, and “Dangote” is named for billionaire CEO Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa.
However, “African Giant” has ample context clues that mean the listeners outside of Nigeria will still understand the larger intent of his songs, if not every individual line.
“Eclectic” best describes “African Giant” as far as sound goes. Burna Boy’s musical palette ranges from jazz to traditional African music, to R&B to Caribbean dancehall, to hip-hop. With the title track and album opener, Burna Boy sets the album’s tone: Flamenco guitar and keyboard wind over bongo and shaker, while he covers his vocals in autotune.
Elements from Nigerian jazz and Afrobeat musicians like Fela Kuti appear, but given the relaxation and 3-3-2 beats throughout, “African Giant” fits better overall as a reggae album.
The overall mood for “African Giant” is laid-back, and the mix of musical flavors keep the listener interested. Burna Boy’s music could play alongside French Montana’s “Unforgettable” or Drake’s “One Dance,” but “African Giant” would stand out with an earthy grit. Burna Boy’s voice is deep, calm and authoritative.
His music never breaks a sweat over the intricate percussion rhythms. Especially great beats include the spiritually-inclined “Destiny,” the jazzily intense “Anybody,” the paranoid hip-hop “Killin Dem” and the moody “Secret.”
Burna Boy’s featured artists are similarly widespread. While the guests on “African Giant” all hail from R&B or hip hop, they’re from a range of nations. Americans YG, Jeremih and Future share the album with British Jorja Smith, Beninese-American Angelique Kidjo, Nigerian Zlatan, Ghanaian M.anifest and Jamaicans Damian Marley and Serani.
The artists all deliver solid performances that complement Burna Boy’s deep and earthy approach to vocals, even the seemingly incongruous Americans. Who would have thought the artist behind “Don’t Tell ‘Em” could somewhat operate on a sensitive track?
On a more serious note, the international mix of guests plays into another theme of the album. Burna Boy calls for unity of the African diaspora on “Different” and the outro of “Spiritual.” He appeals to the common origin and plight of millions scattered throughout the world, and by including the wide range of artists, Burna Boy illustrates his message in his music.
As individual songs, “African Giant” is good, and Burna Boy’s charisma supports the project, but the album doesn’t work well as a cohesive unit. Moods switch from tough, to tender, to transcendent with little warning. “Another Story” begins with a spoken monologue on the mercenary objectives of British colonialism, promises to explain more and does not.
As good as the songs are, they don’t build well, especially toward the end. “Destiny” or “Different” would work so much better as a closing track. Instead, deep cut “Spiritual” closes the album out.
“African Giant” could also be a little shorter. With an hour runtime and a loose structure, filler tracks do appear. Little besides featured artists separates the six love songs, so perhaps one or two could go. Some deep cuts with less invested production would not be missed. None of the songs were bad or unpleasant, simply underwhelming.
Perhaps “African Giant” will be the album to bring Burna Boy wider recognition. He’s received glowing reviews from Pitchfork, Spin, NME and the Guardian. He reached No. 3 on the reggae charts with “Outside,” so the critical response might push him further into the limelight.
The continued success of BTS and other K-pop acts are indicating more willingness for English-speaking audiences to overcome language barriers, and the soundtracks for “Black Panther” and “The Lion King” have spread some clout to African artists, including Burna Boy on “Ja Ara E.”
If Burna Boy does gain wider respect here, he does it on his own terms. “African Giant” might be accessible, but the album has a distinct balance of grit and glory with its grooving percussion, open-air instrumentation and sense of place. Burna Boy does seem more a star on the rise than at his prime with the album, so if “African Giant” interests you, keep your ears peeled.