Burna Boy fortifies the bridge from Africa to the diaspora on his seventh full-length studio album I Told Them

The Nigerian native is one of Afrobeats’ foremost artists, having lived up to the hype with a rich discography and numerous laurels attached to his name. With party-starting anthems like ‘Ye’ and ‘On The Low’, Burna’s versatility shines through his seamless genre transitions and the high quality of his introspective and feel-good tracks. 

The self-anointed ‘African Giant’ has landed on five of Barack Obama’s biannual playlists, including 2022 for his breakup summer smash ‘Last Last’, and again with this album’s lead single ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’. Over the past decade he has solidified his industry presence, most recently becoming the first African artist to sell out a U.S. stadium.

Following up his Grammy-nominated forerunner Love, Damini, the title of I Told Them is emblematic of the album’s declaration to any doubters of his success. Burna challenges this chip on his shoulder across the 40 minute runtime, blending his daring pan-African pop style with nostalgic elements of 1990s hip-hop, insights from Virgil Abloh, and a touch of celebratory self-display. Particularly inspired by the early Wu-Tang Clan sound, the group’s founding members GZA and RZA also join the fray on the spoken word outro of ‘I Told Them’ and the ‘12 Jewels’ interlude respectively. 

Celebrated as a hip-hop staple for his signature Kung Fu samples and his diverse production range, the de facto leader RZA has taken on a sort of mentoring role with Burna Boy and acknowledges a fresh connection between the motherland and America with this album. In his interlude, he elaborates on the twelve jewels of Islam, presenting them as his chosen way of life. These jewels encapsulate twelve fundamental ideals, encompassing valuable qualities each cherished for their inherent simplicity. 

Devising the term ‘Afrofusion’, Burna Boy’s music seamlessly combines elements from diverse corners of the diaspora, fusing a heavy presence of Afrobeats with the support of several other genres such as hip-hop, reggae, and R&B. Accompanied by a multilingual vocal blend, this 15-track project harmoniously aligns his sound with his overarching mission to enhance Pan-Africanism. His mission is to build a bridge that encourages and strengthens bonds of solidarity between all indigenous and diasporas of African ancestry, and foster global unity among Black communities through his art. 

In the fun samba-grooving title track, the first we hear from our Afro-fusionist is “I told them I’m a genius, I had to show them what the meaning is.” In classic Burna Boy style of an assertive and unapologetic opening, he embodies just that, the unwavering belief in himself and his journey towards success and sets the tone for the album. Demanding the recognition he rightfully deserves, Burna’s latest project, much like his last, staunchly rejects musical genres and champions ‘Afrofusion’ as a manifestation of the long-overdue bridge to pan-Africanism. 

In breaking down mere superficial appearances, ‘Normal’ and ‘On Form’ challenges societal norms around relationships and success, urging listeners to prioritise their own lives over external judgments. The lyrics are delivered in a laid-back and polyrhythmic percussion style that’s characteristic of Burna Boy’s music. Using his mother tongue, there are Yoruba phrases interspersed throughout the album adding to the melting pot of Burna Boy’s distinct sonics.

“I showed you how to really do this thing, Oluwa Burna na the blueprint of course and I gave you Afrofusion.”

– Burna Boy on ‘Thanks’.

To continue revelling in the fruits of labour comes ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’. Borrowing from the ‘90s New York bounce of Brandy’s ‘Top of the World’, the track places Burna and the listener in control of their narrative. Solidified by the feature of 21 Savage, his verse focuses more on material success and confidence, nevertheless, aligning with the overall theme of being on top. 

The following cut ‘Cheat On Me’ pivots to explore the themes of self-deception and personal growth. Collaborating with Dave, who previously enlisted Burna on his 3x platinum hit ‘Location’, the lyrics explore the artists’ journeys, challenges, and their attempts to better themselves and their communities while acknowledging the complexities and contradictions that come with fame and personal development. 

Keen Burna Boy listeners will know of the close love and admiration Burna had for the late Virgil Abloh, the visionary creator of Off-White and the former head of Louis Vuitton men’s wear. In paying tribute, the ‘Virgil’ interlude captures a conversation between Virgil and Burna discussing innovative approaches to music consumption, storytelling through albums, and creative promotional strategies. Originally intended for his previous album, the dialogue highlights the idea of connecting music to everyday experiences, revealing deeper layers of meaning, and employing unconventional promotional tactics that align with the album’s theme. 

Burna further pays tribute with the first line of the opening verse on ‘Big 7’: “First of all, rest in peace Virgil Abloh, don’t spill no drink on my clothes when I’m Louis V drippin’”. The title of ‘Big 7’ holds significance within Japanese mythology, the Seven Lucky gods or Seven gods of Fortune are believed to grant good luck with the passing of friends being guardians that watch over him. Along with Abloh, he also recognises Sidhu Moose Wala, the Indian rapper and past collaborator who passed away mid last year. 

Burna further touches upon his struggles and humble beginnings to his rise in the music industry in ‘Dey Play’, which in Nigerian Pidgin means ‘they play’. J Hus’ introduction sets the tone for the song’s confident and self-assured attitude of what it means to be ‘City Boys’. A ‘city boy’ refers to a male who is living his very best life in not chasing feelings or females, but chasing the pursuit of money without letting anybody get in the way. Sampling Jeremih’s debut single ‘Birthday Sex’, ‘City Boys’ celebrates a hedonistic and luxurious lifestyle, emphasising carefree relationships and self-assuredness as “that’s the life of a city boy.”

‘Giza’ featuring Seyi Vibez is a captivating fusion of cultural and linguistic elements, beginning with an infectious flute melody and transitioning seamlessly into mesmerising maracas. This and other tracks such as ‘Tested, Approved & Trusted’ best demonstrate how the album masterfully fuses different sonics together. Throughout the entire album, there’s a clear influence drawn from global sounds, harmoniously interwoven with a pronounced ‘90s hip-hop vibe. The album’s unique one-off magazine artwork reinforces the ‘90s nostalgia and offers thought-provoking life lessons encapsulated in the phrase: “Don’t Complain, Don’t Explain, Just Believe.”

The album proceeds with a mellower tempo on ‘If I’m Lying’ as we see Burna’s harmonious vocals against acoustic backing. The plucking of the guitar strings creates an intimate setting for Burna and his listeners as he expresses gratitude for life and the ability to navigate its challenges. He acknowledges the importance of making sacrifices and holding onto one’s determination even when facing obstacles.

The final title of the track of the album ‘Thanks’ might have you thinking Burna Boy is finally expressing a sentiment of gratitude, but it starts with the jarring Mortal Kombat command of “finish him”. In the context of the song, this sets the tone for a confrontational and assertive last message from Burna: “Is this the motherf***ing thanks I get?” 

Burna Boy conveys his irritation at not receiving due recognition for his artistic efforts, highlighting the disparity between his accomplishments and the acknowledgment he rightfully deserves. J. Cole initiates his verse by establishing a sense of camaraderie with Burna Boy, likening their partnership to the impactful combination of Kobe and Shaq, signifying their different talents coming together to create a powerhouse team that provides long-standing success and global influence in the music scene.

It’s undeniable that Burna Boy’s music defies categorisations, and actively embraces new sounds and global collaborations. I Told Them provides a fresh and modern Burna sound that is grounded in its ‘90s influence, although it lacks the cherished Naija sway we associate with him. His unwavering pursuit to forge transatlantic and intracontinental connections through his art has led to a sense of misguided arrogance.

Burna Boy’s extended tirade challenges the lack of recognition from Nigerians for his monumental achievements that played a significant role in elevating Afrobeats onto the world stage. While the pan-African message remains significant, a more globally inclusive effort is essential due to its reach on a global scale. He deserves the accolades for his sonic and social accomplishments, but due credit also belongs to Nigerian contemporaries Davido and Wizkid in their efforts of fortifying the bridge. 

Regardless, the Nigerian artists’ seventh full-length album undeniably advances his mission of uniting, inspiring and working towards connecting African heritage communities across the globe. I Told Them is unquestionably a strong sonic album, but falls short in terms of evoking deep emotions or profound thoughts. It primarily revolves around Burna Boy’s quest for recognition from his audience, making it less immersive and impactful than the originality of African Giant and the critical acclaim achieved by Twice As Tall. Representing Burna’s current stance on the industry and exposing us to a new artistic side of the African Giant, this project marks part one of his storytelling journey. With no assurance of a thematic continuation of the sequel, Burna Boy’s assertive nature implies that he has told us once and won’t tell us again.

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