“Twice As Tall”, the third album from Burna Boy under his partnership with Atlantic Records is the ideal album at this stage in his career
“Oh I have to be twice as tall at least to be better than I do”. So goes the sampled opener on Burna Boy’s new album ” Twice As Tall”. As the title portends, the album is both a statement, a testament and drive of an artist who feels he has a mission to place himself, the continent he represents and its music on the global map.
Across three albums, Burna Boy has sought to achieve the latter. On “Outside” (2018), he bridged the gap between afropop and pop music. But, it was the behemoth single “Ye”, that caught the attention of music fans in Europe and the US. On the eponymous, Grammy-nominated album “African Giant” (2019), Burna Boy became a globally recognizable artist. The success of “African Giant”, largely backed by resources from Atlantic Records opened doors for him, including two solid features on Beyonce’s “The Gift: Lion King” album.
Despite the ruins that COVID-19 pandemic has caused in 2020, the Nigerian artist’s roll has not been impeded. Singles, collaborations, including one with Sam Smith followed, days before the announcement of a new album “Twice Tall”. With legendary hip hop producer and founder of Bad Boy Records, Diddy as executive producer, one could clearly sense what Atlantic Records and Burna Boy wanted to do with this album: to introduce afropop to the European and North American music market.
As the tracklist was announced, the reaction from fans were mixed. Whereas some feared “Twice As Tall” would cape to Euro-American market standards, thus losing its African grit, some deemed this move as a marketing strategy aimed at selling Burna Boy as a cross-over pop star; a good step considering his stature in today’s world music affairs.
With the release of the album on August 14, 2020, these viewpoints were vindicated. The album is a hybrid between “Outside” and “African Giant” in respect to its sonic direction and brand positioning. It condensed the african sound with western pop in a way that satisfies both fans.
“Twice As Tall” opens with the soulful, introspective and inspirational “Level Up”. Burna Boy recalls his past and his present while emphasizing his journey. Lyrics like “Tell them say, they can’t bury us/’Cause the love makes me stand up every time me fall” and “Never thought I could level up till I started filling these venues up” offers a glimpse into the artist he is today. Veteran Senegalese legend, Youssou N’duor, like the elder statesman that he offers sage, inspirational edicts about self-belief on the hook of this afro dancehall record, where he blends his native Wolof with English: “You can do it/Never, never, ever stop”. Youssou N’dour’s soaring, riveting and passionate vocals not only balances with the mellow, sombre vocals of Burna Boy but feels like a ray of light through a cloudy sky.
If there is another thing that was successfully exhibited on this album, it was Burna Boy’s knowledge about the musical taste of the continent and how to satisfy these buds. The saxophone led “Alarm Clock” (with its possessive drums courtesy Anderson.Paak), “Way To Big”, “Bebo (Baby)” and “Wonderful”- released as the first single of “Twice As Tall”-, are crafted along party jams. The records are pulsating, danceable, rhythmic and in-tune with how African pop records sound. On “Wonderful” for instance, the choir-like chants sounds like one inspired by the legendary South African group, Lady Smith Black Mambazo and their work on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album.
Diddy’s role as a consummate hip hop producer could be heard on “Naughty By Nature”, where Burna Boy both featured the group and flipped their 1999 hit record “Jamboree”. The malleability of Burna Boy and the musical brilliance of Diddy resulted in the packaging of nostalgia in a refreshing way.
At 29, Burna Boy knows enough about life – its ups, downs, failures, success, losses and wins. He has also realized how his petulant actions, mostly borne out of youthful exuberance had impacted his life and career. The lessons have coalesced to shape his consciousness. And, on the bubbly afro-dancehall “No Fit Vex”, he prods into some of these themes, crooning empathetically “life e no easy, my brother/you dey find your own/I dey find my own”. Burna continues to dig into the theme of self-worth with regards to his chosen career on “23”, where he draws a parallel between himself and the basketball great, Michael Jordan. The mellow bop with its soulful charm naturally put you in the mood to sing along to the catchy hook (“music make me feel like I be Jordan”) and step to the inviting groove.
“Time Flies” and “Monsters You Made Me” belong to the paragon of great music, along with the aforementioned “23”. While the East African supergroup Sauti Sol lend their voice to the Sade “Sweetest Taboo” sampled record about the fleeting nature of time (“time flies like a thief in the night/We all got a story to write/So, darling jump in the ride/Before the train is gone”), Coldplay’s Chris Martin elevate the appeal of “Monsters You Made Me”, the politically charged track of the album.
Sampling Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”, Fela Kuti’s take on the state of Nigerian politics serves as a harbinger to what was to unfold. The two artists, though different in terms of genres, are politically conscious individuals. The reaction of people to the song is, therefore, unsurprising. Chris Martins’ croon: “Calling me a monster/calling us fake/ No way” serves as the curtain-raiser to this political perforation of the Nigerian situation. The lumbering reggae feel on the production, along with the no-hold bars delivery of Burna Boy about colonialism, corruption and effects on Nigeria’s development,and Chris Martin’s vocal touch contributes to making “Monsters You Made Me” one of the essential records of the album. (Don’t forget the importance of Ama Ata Aidoo’s culled interview to the overarching theme of the song).
The afrobeats intoned “Wettin Dey Sup” is a snapshot into life on the streets of his home region of Port Harcourt; an ethos that has shaped Burna Boy’s own mentality. “Real Life” featuring Stormzy on hook duties flips T-Pain’s 2005 hit single “I’m Sprung”. Closing “Twice As Tall” is the Jae5 produced “Bank On It”, a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of life. Hearing Burna sing: “Life is sweet when the sun up/Like the trees in the summer/When the seas are troubled/Then, we all need someone” sounds like a prayer.
“Twice As Tall” has already been touted as a Grammy contender, his second attempt towards winning the golden saxophone trophy. You can see that in both the sonic direction – more polished to suit the palate of a western audience- and the features, both the guest artists and producers, including the executive producer, Diddy. Burna Boy has succeeded in finding the right balance between afrobeats and western pop aesthetics, a quality that has eluded many of his African pop contemporaries. His musical malleability, where he could ride the afrobeats wave and the western styled genres contributed to making the album a delightful listen. These form some of the positives of the album.
Burna Boy surprisingly gave us a bit more about himself on this album- his background and its influence on his career (Level Up, Wettin Dey Sup, Bank On It), his political views on “Monsters You Made Me”. And, as he indicates on ” Way Too Big”: “You say you wan try/Oya, do am if e easy/Your back and spinal chord go break/If you carry my weight”. This is not a brag. Rather, a statement of fact. Who else in today’s African pop culture is more recognized and achieved all that Burna Boy has in a three year period?.