Burna Boy’s Dazzling African Giant Is One of the Year’s Best Albums So Far
If the album’s title didn’t give it away, Burna Boy has no use for modesty. With the recent release of his fourth studio album, African Giant, the Nigerian singer born Damini Ogulu has delivered a swaggering, electric, and passion-fueled statement that lives up to the towering persona being put forth at its outset.
African Giant arrives in the winding days of summer and, like a bizarro version of a groundhog seeing its shadow, the phenomenal new record feels like it was made specifically to extend the season. Burna Boy’s his enigmatic voice hovers over majestic, low-tempo funk that blends dancehall and Afropop production; the result is the most magic summer soundtrack to come around in awhile. African Giant ranges from being tough (“Killin Dem”) to deeply romantic (“Gum Body,” “Secret”) to reverent of Nigerian and afrobeat history (“African Giant,” “Another Story”), while still centering party-ready vibes with that follow from the album’s grooves and rhythm.
African Giant will certainly be seen as Burna Boy’s crossover moment, establishing him as a capable global artist. But, as Burna Boy’s profile has risen, he has avoided the mistakes that plague so many genre-blurring breakouts, which is thinking that one’s style needs to be sanitized in order to cross into the mainstream. Think Wizkid’s Star Boy, the album released last year by the fellow Afrobeats superstar, which dabbled far too much in generic American rap and r&b styles. While there are a few scattered appearances of American artists like Future, YG, and Jorja Smith on African Giant, they’re superfluous as opposed to distracting, mercifully failing to water down or commercialize Burna Boy’s music.
In fact, in interviews, Burna has made it clear this is something he feels passionate about. “An American artist can come to Africa and rap his English rap with his slangs that we don’t even get, but we say it,” Burna Boy told The Atlantic recently, doubling down on his commitment that he doesn’t need to adapt to the mainstream. And indeed, on African Giant he shows the viability of his specific sound, which is clearly indebted to history while also feeling distinctly modern, to be just as potent ear candy as any pop music made here.
African Giant has a wide scope, evoking the psychedelic funk of legendary Nigerian artists like Lagbaja and of course Fela Kuti; the intimate rhythms of slower Beenie Man or Vybez Kartel records; and bass-heavy grooves of modern R&B. Lyrically, Burna marries political and social commentary on tracks like “Wetin Man Go Do,” where he sings about his upbringing, and “Another Story,” where he talks about Nigerian history. And yet, there’s also a lot of his brash braggadocio on “Show & Tell” and “Spiritual” as well as syrupy smooth talk on the album single “Pull Up” and the Jeremih-collaboration “Secret.” All of it works together seamlessly, as Burna carries himself like an expert chef lording over a large melting pot.
Key to accomplishing this is Burna’s rich understanding of the music that he plays with. The shared DNA between R&B, rap, reggae, funk, and afrobeat allow the singer to mess with the sounds and techniques of music he grew up on, like King Sunny Ade or Bob Marley or DMX. He not only finds the intersection points between a whole diaspora of music, but expands them. Burna is also evolving and maturing into his voice on the album. His thick accent and deep voice slip in and out of English and Yoruba, his native tongue, showing his dexterity not just as a musician but also a vocalist.
When you read interviews or hear Burna Boy talk, you very quickly realize how seriously he takes his music and Nigerian pop as a whole, gushing over artists who have inspired him. Listening to African Giant bears that devotion and appreciation out; a well-crafted and acute record that shows its creator to be a musical chameleon. He effectively adapts a diverse set of influences and techniques into his sound in a way that only the finest songwriters can do. African Giant is easily Burna Boy’s most cohesive and strongest project, with even the diverse list of guest stars—from Damien Marley to Nigerian rapper Zlatan to Jeremih and Future—being used expertly without overkill. Burna Boy is the true star at the center. He wears the title well.