Rather than feel betrayed or ignored by the evolution of Burna Boy’s musicality, his Nigerian fans should instead, bask in pride, and be excited by how far their “African Giant” can grow…
By Yinoluwa Olowofoyeku
In the ever-evolving landscape of the music industry, Nigerian artiste, Burna Boy, has once again, ignited conversations with the release of his eagerly anticipated music video for the vibrant single, “Big 7.” This electrifying video debut was swiftly followed by the announcement of his seventh studio album, intriguingly titled I Told Them, scheduled for release on the 25th of August, 2023. This release comes on the back of other previously released singles from the coming album, namely “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” where he featured American rapper 21 Savage and “Talibans II,” featuring Dancehall artiste, Byron Messia. With these dual unveilings, Burna Boy has sparked a fervent debate among fans and critics about his artistic trajectory.
“Big 7” is a powerful teaser which serves as a testament to Burna Boy’s artistry while setting the stage for what is to come. The video, a visually striking masterpiece, was expertly helmed by prolific American filmmaker and Hip-Hop director Benny Boom. Shot against the backdrop of the bustling streets of New York City, the video exudes a dynamic energy that matches the song’s fervent vibe. It even features a sizable number of cameo appearances from American celebrities, such as the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Junior Mafia, Busta Rhymes, and even actor Shameik Moore (the voice behind Miles Moreles from Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse). The attention is less about the song’s visuals, but rather, it is the implication of the song’s release – in conjunction with the other singles – that has fans and pundits buzzing. The general consensus seems to worry that Burna Boy, with these new singles, is leaving Afrobeats behind.
Within the cascade of reactions, there is a fascinating duality of opinions. On one hand, there are fervent supporters of Burna Boy’s experimentation and willingness to delve into new sounds and styles. These enthusiasts eagerly anticipate his musical exploration beyond the borders of Afrobeats, curious about the fresh narratives he might unveil. On the other hand, a contingent of fans is wary, expressing concerns about Burna Boy straying too far from the Afrobeats roots that have propelled him to his current global acclaim. But, the latter cohort is reminded by the former that Burna Boy has never been one to stay put stylistically.
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Perhaps recalling past instances could provide insight into Burna Boy’s inclination to traverse uncharted sonic territories. One of the strongest examples of Burna Boy’s diversity was his 2018 album, Outside. In the lead-up to the 2018 album, there were releases of tracks such as the ethereal “Heaven’s Gate” featuring British singer, Lily Allen, the exuberant 808-heavy anthem “Streets of Africa,” and the R&B-infused “Devil in California.” These songs, though stylistically distinct from the traditional Afrobeats canon, resonated with many Nigerian listeners, and coexisted harmoniously alongside more vernacular tracks like “Ye” and “Rock Your Body.” It is worth noting that although there was pushback against his more experimental tracks even then, it was not nearly as prominent as it is now. Perhaps this was because, in the case of Outside, the stylistic outliers did not make up a majority of the album’s runtime. This meant detractors could easily skip the outliers to the more favourable Afrobeats offerings on the project. The contrasting elements within the album – combining both experimental and Afrobeats tracks – seemed to have provided a balanced listening experience for the full spectrum of his audience. By effectively blending these divergent styles, Burna Boy’s previous albums have managed to satiate both his existing fanbase and those open to embracing new musical horizons.
However, the narrative has shifted since Burna Boy’s ascent to the ranks of the Afrobeats elite, alongside fellow luminaries, Wizkid and Davido. With his newfound status, there is an air of heightened expectation and scrutiny, which has amplified the ongoing debate about artistic direction. As much as the Nigerian music industry is beginning to seek globalisation, there is also still a significant sense of apprehension within Nigerian audiences. The Nigerian audience yearns to see their musical icons rise on the international stage but remains wary of the overt embrace of foreign sounds and styles.
This sentiment is exemplified by the contrasting reception of Burna Boy’s sonic evolution to that of his contemporary, Davido. When Davido became more internationally focused with his music, he was celebrated for bridging cultural divides while retaining his Afrobeats essence, as showcased by hits like “If” and “Fall.” In contrast, Burna Boy’s divergence from that strict Afrobeats sound has sparked discussions about authenticity and creative intent When we peek into the reception of Burna Boy’s discography at each junction of his career, the disparity becomes clearer.
Let’s begin with when Burna Boy went global in 2019. Burna Boy’s album, African Giant, came in the wake of his infamous tiff with Coachella about the size of his name’s print in their promotional material. The timing was perfect. as he stunned the world with his live performances on that massive stage, then proceeded to dazzle again on the album. African Giant ushered in Burna Boy’s rise to international stardom with massive local Afrobeats hits like the evergreen “Dangote,” the sensational “Killin’ Dem,” and the club banger “Anybody,” coexisting peacefully alongside songs that seemed designed to appeal to the Western world by virtue of the artistes featured on them. Future, YG, Damian Marley, Jeremih, and Jorja Smith amongst others, were recruited to lend their signature styles to Afrobeats songs. To some, this was a big step towards “Project: Afrobeats to the World,” as having international artistes embrace Afrobeats seemed like a sure-fire way to put the genre on the global map. To others, the approach felt disingenuous, and the featured artistes were unable to do the sounds justice.
This international integration continued – albeit to various degrees – in the following years. 2020 saw Burna Boy become a seeming staple of the British music industry. He bagged a number of international awards nods including two Brit Awards nominations, a double nomination and a win in the MOBO Awards, and a BET Awards win. He was consistently featured by British singers like J Hus, Stormzy, and notably, Sam Smith on “My Oasis.” These features hinted at Burna Boy’s latent versatility, a trait that was cemented on Twice As Tall. Gone were the mainstream Afrobeats bangers. Creative Afrofusion was the order of the day on the 2020 album, boasting tracks like the evolving opening, “Level Up,” the electronic-tinged “Way Too Big,” the expressive “23,” and the popular Chris Martin-assisted “Monsters You Made.”
In light of the sonic transition, Burna Boy was accused of sacrificing his core Afrobeats sound in pursuit of international recognition – which eventually came in the form of his 2021 Grammy win. Some fans felt that the sonic shift was disingenuous while many seemed to understand the desire to craft an album that would be deemed worthy of an award as prestigious as a Grammy. The fact that he did win seemed to vindicate Burna Boy’s approach. It eventually satiated detractors and things returned to normalcy. The next few singles after the album seemed to return to the vein of 2019’s Afrobeats bangers, with the release of songs like “Kilometre,” and “Question.”
Then came 2022’s Love, Damini, which appeared to be a return to “Project: Afrobeats to the World,” seeing Burna Boy curate an album majorly comprised of Afrobeats songs just like he did on African Giant. His improved international profile meant that he could call on an impressive host of international features such as Khalid, J Hus, Popcaan, Kehlani, J Balvin, and Ed Sheeran. The reception was stellar, with a lot of praise heaped on Burna Boy’s storytelling prowess and his apparent loyalty to Afrobeats sounds. Love, Damini was also nominated for a 2023 Grammy award. While Burna Boy lost out, it communicated to the fans that it was indeed possible for authentic Afrobeats albums to be internationally recognised. This revelation seemingly negates the perceived need to deviate from Afrobeats for plaudits.
The implications of this opposition to sonic deviation are significant. The insular nature of the Nigerian audience, often driven by fickleness and an insistence on keeping artists within predefined boxes, can inadvertently stifle artistic growth and experimentation. The fear of artistes departing from established norms may inadvertently dampen the creative spirits of musicians and limit their potential. Thankfully, Burna Boy has proved himself resistant to these pressures.
As we refocus on the present, it is essential to recognise that “Big 7” and the forthcoming album are not departures from his roots, but reflections of his journey towards boundless creative expressions. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Burna Boy says “Big 7 is a melodic tribute to my musical journey. The title represents a symbolic aspiration to reach greater horizons, with the number 7 embodying an attainable and harmonious growth.” While this may or may not be promotional, the number seven has cultural, historical, and even religious significance. The number seven is often purported as a spiritual symbol across different religions and cultures. It is widely reputed as embodying perfection or referring to a state of completeness and wholeness. The number also features on the album art of African Giant and may have some personal significance to Burna Boy. So, with I Told Them as his seventh studio album – his ‘big 7’ –, Burna Boy could be referring to the growth of his sound as it has seemingly approached a point of totality or full emergence.
Burna Boy’s evolution is a testament to his versatility and enduring creative diversity. It is a reflection of an artiste who is unafraid to defy expectations and explore the vast expanse of sonic possibilities. As his musical horizons continue to expand, Burna Boy remains firmly committed to pushing boundaries, revealing his true artistic potential. His recent international prominence and access to a global stage have simply expanded his creative canvas, and the resulting exploration of foreign sounds is a natural consequence of this growth.
As we approach the release of I Told Them, it is clear that the pre-album singles are tantalising trailers that offer listeners a glimpse of what awaits within the full-length experience. Burna Boy’s track record is a testament to his ability to surprise and captivate, delivering music that defies categorisation, while maintaining his unmistakable essence. With each new release, Burna Boy reaffirms his commitment to pushing the boundaries of musical expression, ensuring that his legacy as a genre-blurring visionary remains intact. As his journey unfolds, maybe it is time for the fans to surrender to Burna Boy’s creative fire and embrace his approaching musical odyssey that will, yet again, leave an indelible mark on the industry. Rather than feel betrayed or ignored by the evolution of Burna Boy’s musicality, his Nigerian fans should instead, bask in pride, and be excited by how far their “African Giant” can grow.
Yinoluwa “Yinoluu” Olowofoyeku is a multi-disciplinary artist and creative who finds expression in various media.