The tale of Nigerian superstar Burna Boy’s globe-straddling fifth album begins where many artists dream of ending up – at the 2020 US Grammy awards, held last January. But all was not well. Burna Boy was losing his lunch.
“I remember when I couldn’t level up,” the singer intones on Level Up, the album opener, “cause the Grammys had me feeling sick as fuck/ Throwing up and shit/ Asking questions like, ‘Why it wasn’t us?’”
The last time Burna Boy – real name Damini Ogulu – made a record, July 2019’s African Giant, it was a cultural landmark. At last count, this bold Afro-fusion album – a cocktail of Jamaican dancehall, hip-hop, R&B, traditional sources such as Fela Kuti-style Afrobeat and more contemporary pan-African party music – has had more than 1bn global streams. Ogulu, who comes from Nigeria but spent significant chunks of his late youth in the UK, sold out Wembley Arena last November. Stormzy, Dave and fellow Nigerian superstar Wizkid were guests.
The world music gong went to Angélique Kidjo. She graciously dedicated it to Ogulu. “This is for Burna Boy,” she said in her acceptance speech, “[who is] among those young artists [who] came from Africa [who] are changing the way our continent is perceived.” (Kidjo, incidentally, was a guest on African Giant.)
While all that was true, the slights still rankled. If African Giant confirmed a series of major trends in global music – that “music of black origin” was hybridising rapidly, that the citizens of the wider African diaspora were embracing the music of the continent with fresh ears and that a notionally pop audience was also listening – Twice As Tall finds Burna Boy considering where to go from that puddle of reflux.
Spoiler: he does it all again, with bells on. First, though, Ogulu mischievously raises an eyebrow. Level Up opens up with a snippet of a breezy retro song – from the 1959 film Journey to the Centre of the Earth. “I’d have to be twice as tall at least to feel better than I do,” it goes. “Oh I’d have to be thrice as wide at least to feel better, you’ll agree.” Burna Boy’s awards disappointment is played for mirth. No one expects this Pat Boone anachronism. On another level, though, the ditty points up the perennial problem of black insufficiency in the eyes of white gatekeepers.
So yes, of course Burna Boy doubles down here. Twice As Tall takes many of the compelling constituent parts of African Giant – the matter-of-fact Yoruba and Pidgin verses, the innovative yet commercial sounds from his Nigerian producers, some high-profile collaborations, his political awakening – and runs them harder. The catchy Wonderful, the first single, goes all out on the theme of Africa as humanity’s motherland; the visuals broadcast the sort of riotous tribal maximalism that Beyoncé has now made mainstream.
By contrast, the equally arresting Alarm Clock is a wake-up call that features an expressive horn line, a vintage African shuffle and the unexpected spectacle of Sean “Diddy” Combs preaching black unity.
Because if Burna Boy wasn’t short of endorsements before, he’s well behind the velvet rope now. Combs is the co-producer here, calling in Anderson .Paak for some beats and Timbaland to add special sauce to Wetin Dey Sup. Stormzy drops by, crooning about peace of mind on Real Life, returning a favour (Burna Boy guested on Stormzy’s Own It).
Monsters You Made is, of all things, an anti-colonial hip-hop track that hugs the cadences of Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana; wherever you stand on Chris Martin, he lends his tones here too. Burna Boy’s theme is the “monstering” of black Africans, specifically by the colonial powers, and how the outrage of the brutalised is then condemned afresh. The leap to Black Lives Matter and the actions of certain US police forces is not hard to make. The parallel with Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s poet-warrior, is one that hovers just out of shot. The Ghanaian writer, academic and stateswoman Ama Ata Aidoo is sampled at the end. “Is it over?” she asks, rhetorically.
More excellent incursions come from Senegal’s own African giant, Youssou N’Dour, on Level Up, and the veteran hip-hop outfit Naughty By Nature, who Burna Boy loved growing up.
Ogulu first made his name in 2012 as a vibes-bringer; he surfed a wave of youthful Nigerian confidence that aped US bling, but refashioned it for a new generation of young Africans. Experience has deepened and broadened him. It is a mark of Burna Boy’s distinctiveness that not even the more overweening of the egos on board really staunch his flow.