The follow up to last year’s African Giant sees the breakout Afrobeats star attempt to surpass his own high bar. We run through a few of its highlights.
After close to a decade of grinding to achieve a steadily bubbling success, Burna Boy entered the final year of the 2010s as an artist on the cusp of truly arriving to the global pop mainstream. In early January he’d go low-key viral by calling out Coachella for the way they’d billed him on their festival lineup, and by November he’d be selling out London arenas, touring an album named after that already-iconic Instagram story.
It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that if at the start of 2019, asserting himself as an African giant had felt in any way like hubris, by the end of the year it already felt like an understatement. And while the effects of 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic on the music industry has obviously stalled momentum, with the arrival of his fifth album Twice as Tall earlier this month, it’s clear that Burna Boy is in no mind to let the events of this year entirely derail his progress.
Creatively ambitious and clearly unencumbered by the need to stick to any single genre, it’s a record that finds its superhero-styled protagonist shifting moods and sounds as and when he sees fit, delivering odes to the people who’ve appreciated his music as comfortably as he does missives about the insidious and ever-present evils of colonialism. And moving briskly through 15 tracks in its just-under-an-hour runtime, it’s also long enough to leave an impression without ever outstaying its welcome – the whole album is well worth your time, but if you’re short on that, here’s a handful of our favourite moments from Twice as Tall.
Level Up (ft. Youssou N’Dour)
Any great album first needs a great scene-setter, and Twice as Tall’s opener hits that mark comfortably. He recounts adversities from his pre-fame years through to the pain felt at losing the Best World Music Award at this year’s Grammys where Beninese legend (and previous collaborator on African Giant) Angelique Kidjo won, dedicating her award to Burna Boy in the process.
While in less capable hands the song could easily come across as bitter or petty, here the defining note is one of resolution – as the second verse moves from that awards-night pain to the absolute power Burna had felt headlining Wembley Arena just a few months earlier, it’s clear that although he’s come impossibly far, he still believes above all else that he hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling. This album is about proving that.
Way Too Big
In certain parts of the internet, the words “Mike Dean guitar solo” carry the kind of gravitas that’s very rarely afforded to non-headline performers. Dean’s had a hand in more than a few of the more creatively ambitious rap and R&B records of the past decade, serving essentially as an in-house producer at Kanye West’s GOOD Music and featuring prominently across much of Travis Scott’s most notable work, among other assignments. Which is all to say: he has a pretty distinct sound.
It’s to Burna’s infinite credit, then, that on this early-in-the-piece heater he doesn’t come close to being overshadowed by his guest’s overdriven outro. Over a propulsive, bouncy beat by longtime Burna Boy collaborator LeriQ (with additional contributions by genuine needs-no-intro legend Timbaland), he’s in full flight, chest-out and voice cracking as he details the things he’s way too big, smart and cool for these days. Again, though, where it could’ve come across as an empty brag from a lesser artist, here these words feel like one thing only: unbridled, pride-filled joy.
While it’s offset at times by frustration, rage and uncertainty, that joy is something of a consistent theme on Twice as Tall, and it’s never more explicit than on mid-album highlight ‘Wonderful’. A song inspired, in his own words, by “seeing the impact of my music on people’s lives as they shared their joy, pain and pleasure with me while I toured the world”, and recorded using a blend of the English, Nigerian Pidgin and Yoruba languages, it’s three minutes of high energy, zero-worry pop music that effortlessly distills Burna Boy’s genuinely global appeal.
No Fit Vex
With his career to date being anything but one-note, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Burna Boy runs the emotional gamut here too. On ‘No Fit Vex’ the tone is relatively more plaintive than elsewhere on the album as Burna speaks to those he’s had disagreements or disputes with in the past, letting them know that he understands life’s various struggles and that he doesn’t bear them any ill will. If that sounds at all dreary, though, it’s absolutely not – with LeriQ again behind the boards, the result is a fluid, dancehall-tinged track with a truly gorgeous vocal; the kind of sad song you play when you’re about ready to feel happy again.
Monsters You Made (ft. Chris Martin)
Speaking to NME earlier this month, Burna Boy took a strong tone when talking about the current global movement against the symbols and systems of oppression in place against, particularly, people on the African continent and of the African diaspora. He told interviewer Kevin EG Perry: “There are so many situations where a fight needs to be had. A revolution is needed, and I want to inspire it.”
‘Monsters You Made’ may not be the album’s only reckoning with the darker aspects of the world as we currently know it, but it’s maybe the most pointed example, as Burna rails against the systemic racism of the British colonial education system in Nigeria and the ways that imperialist oppression gave rise to violence and militance across his home country – and how his people have since been demonised for it.
With a hook sung from the perspective of Burna but the voice of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and bookended by spoken quotes by legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti and Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo, it’s a statement made only more powerful by how beautifully it’s delivered – bold, booming and designed to stick in your head for days on end.
Bank On It
As important as it is for an album to start out strong, it’s maybe even more crucial for an album as anticipated as this one that it finishes on an equally high note. Thankfully for Burna Boy, he doesn’t appear to have come close to letting that pressure overwhelm here, as closer ‘Bank On It’ offers one final high-point to a record full of them.
Produced by Jae5, the East Londoner behind modern British classics like J Hus’ ‘Did You See’ and Dave’s ‘Location’ (the latter of course featuring a show-stopping turn from Burna himself), Burna’s in a similar zone here to the one Stormzy occupied on ‘Blinded by Your Grace’. Paying tribute to Pop Smoke, claiming for his hometown and asserting that any doubters can ‘bank on’ the statements he’s made, Burna Boy’s still spitting and still proud. But as the beat builds to a climactic close and a choir appears to echo the words of our protagonist, more than anything he sounds like he truly believes what he’s saying. And he sounds thankful for that.