Burna Boy: Twice as Tall review – fun and fury from Nigerian pop polymath

By rooting modern production in traditional melody, and drawing on various musical styles while staying true to African pop, Burna Boy defines multilayered black identity.

or a vivid snapshot of what Burna Boy is capable of, head for track 12 of new album Twice as Tall, entitled Monsters You Made. The music is modern Africa, in the same way grime precisely captured young London of the day. Drill down, and the cleverly deconstructed phrases echo familiar-sounding black music concepts – in this case, roots reggae – but as a whole it’s totally of its immediate environment, and utterly original. Lyrically, the song is a sharp focusing of the singer’s never-far-from-the-surface rage into a furious condemnation of an under-considered aspect of global black life. He addresses the ruling classes, arguing that it is they who have fomented any black anger, even crime, through colonial oppression. If Black Lives Matter organisers were looking for a theme song, they’d be hard pushed to find a better fit.

Monsters You Made also has an in-song pairing we’re never likely to see again: 78-year-old Ghanaian feminist, political activist and playwright Ama Ata Aidoo and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. The former is in the shape of a snatch of TV interview about the damage done to Africa by colonialism, in which she rinses the host and hangs him out to dry; the latter finds Gwyneth Paltrow’s ex-husband singing a chorus warning that there’s only so much people are going to take.

This is Burna Boy distilled in a song. The Nigerian pop star, who in recent years has become Africa’s most successful, is smart, open-minded and unafraid in words and music. He knows that, in the age of the internet, global black music styles need to be embraced, not shied away from, and he’s willing to welcome most of them, providing they come in on his terms and know not to put their feet on the furniture.

He’s confident enough to spring more surprises on top of the Aidoo/Martin mashup. The album opens with a worryingly lengthy snatch of Pat Boone singing a song called Twice as Tall, taken from the 1959 movie Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and it’s assumed there’s irony involved – former rock’n’roller Boone is now best known for his rightwing politics. Then on the track Real Life, with the aid of a vocoder, he has Stormzy crooning in true R&B style.

Following on from African Giant, Twice as Tall positions African music in the 21st century by using contemporary sounds for traditional melodies and rhythms. It’s everything it should be to keep the purist happy, but subliminally familiar enough to make sense to the post-digital generation. This isn’t an easy act to balance, and contributes to Burna Boy’s wide appeal as much as his clever incorporations of such styles as R&B, dancehall, roots reggae, hip hop and dub. These exist within the mixes as an idea: that you can revel in the particularities your own specific locale while also being part of a pan-global black culture.

The result is songs that are intricate but still tricky, in the way African rhythms can be, but there’s a comforting palm wine-y warmth – regardless of his almost perpetual fury or often tedious boasting, Twice as Tall is usually more urbane than urban. And crucially, the singer is totally in tune with what his fellow millennials expect from their music and their cultural experiences – previous works have proved a vital touchstone for those of African heritage one or two generations removed from their motherlands. It’s with this in mind that his international approaches make the most sense. His grandfather was Fela Kuti’s first manager, and he appears to be following in that legend’s footsteps, as Fela grafted funk on to conventional Nigerian music to became the country’s biggest international superstar. Until Burna Boy that is. Twice as Tall was streamed more than 5m times during its first hour of release.

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