Burna Boy Unapologetically Basks in Achievements on “I Told Them”
Barely a year after his last album, “Love Damini,” Grammy-award-winning Nigerian artist, Burna Boy (Damini Ogulu) has released his latest musical offering “I Told Them.” And from how it plays out (literally speaking), he made a bold move, which may not please the eardrums of everyone.
Ever since his 2019 masterpiece “African Giant,” Burna Boy has been a global ambassador for African music. With “I Told Them,” Burna boy takes a monumental shift, ditching his signature Pan-Africanism – a strategy that played a pivotal role in establishing his international renown – in favor of self-appraisal which, in theory, shouldn’t be a bad thing since he recently became the first African act to sell out a stadium in the US and UK.
However, it comes against the backdrop of controversial statements about his perceived lack of substance in Afrobeats during an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music. These remarks attracted significant backlashes from fans and non-fans alike leaving listeners with mixed feelings as they navigate the new Burna Boy.
When asked about the inspiration behind the intriguing title of his latest album, Burna Boy revealed an intriguing story into the depths of his own social media history. He explained that as he scrolled through his past tweets, he felt like he was embarking on a journey through time as he had accurately predicted the outcome of his career. Thus, one could view the title as a defiant declaration of unbridled confidence.
This 15-track LP is 45 min and 35 seconds long and features a diverse range of artists such as British rapper Dave, American rappers 21 Savage and J Cole, budding Nigerian street star Seyi Vibes and an unexpected addition, GZA and RZA of the legendary Wu-Tang clan. Why Wu-Tang? In the conversation with Zane Lowe, Burna Boy disclosed that the Wu-Tang clan’s influence encapsulated the energy and emotions he hoped to convey; the kung-fu samples sporadically popping up throughout the album a vivid representation of his emotional state during its production.
Burna kicks off his newest project with a bold declaration in the title track “I Told Them.” He confidently states “I told them I’m a genius/had to show them what the meaning is/I told them I’m a giant/a real African giant/self-confident self-reliant/ for some reason they didn’t believe it/ so here we are.” These words, delivered over a background of guitar and congas, might seem like a direct contradiction to his own advice of “You go explain tire, no evidence” (explanations without evidence are meaningless). But this is Burna Boy we’re talking about. Evidence of his greatness is abundant and even his doubters can attest to it. Unfortunately, the 46-second spoken-word performance from GZA feels unnecessary, spoiling what could have been a flawless 135 seconds.
The prevailing self-confidence persists in “On Form” albeit in a more subdued tone, making it a more effective representation of Burna Boy’s elevated status compared to “I Told Them.” The rhythmic elements, including the drums, contribute to the song’s appeal delivering a track that is the epitome of Afrobeats. In contrast, its precursor, “Normal,” despite following an almost identical rhythmic pattern, comes across as an easily skippable song.
For the lead single, “Sitting on Top of the World,” Burna links up with Atlanta rapper, 21 Savage exuding ‘90s American hip-hop vibes. This alignment makes sense as it revolves around a sample from Brandy’s 1998 hit “Top of the World” which features Mase. In it, he acknowledges his position at the pinnacle of the music industry. It is a fitting status for him considering he’s Afrobeats’ most bankable artist, having graced prestigious stages many can only dream of (such as the 2023 Champions League Final). He sings “Tell me what we do when these people don’t know what you’ve been through./ You survived through the night, through the darkest of times/ It’s only right that you do what you like.” 21 Savage’s smooth vocals complement Burna Boy’s delivery and it’s easy to see why it earned a spot on Barack Obama’s 2023 summer playlist.
Thankfully, the nonchalance in the first three songs is temporarily withdrawn in the Kwab-sampled “Cheat On Me.” Here, Burna opts instead to self-reflect and calmly remind listeners that even though many didn’t believe in him, he constantly proves them wrong as he sings “No, be everybody be believer. / Anytime that I pull up, I deliver. / Before you start to criticize, / consider, oh, consider, oh….” He takes it further by sliding back to his Pan-African roots, briefly touching on the topic of Nigerians being denied visas by foreign embassies. Dave adds his unique British flavor boosting its replay value ten-fold. The addictive nature of the beat becomes apparent when you discover that LiTek and WhYJay are the masterminds behind its production.
The next four tracks “Virgil,” ‘“Big 7 ” “Dey Play” and “City Boys” offer a mix of vulnerability, self-reflection, and celebration, constantly switching between the last two–from the somber opening “First of all, rest in peace Virgil Abloh, / Don’t spill no drink on my clothes when I’m Louis V drippin” in “Big 7”, where he honors the late designer Virgil Abloh, to the pompous “O yе ke (Yeah) da mo” (translating to ‘You should know how big I am) on the upbeats in “City Boys.”
The self-acclaimed African Giant hopes to appease the streets with “Giza” by featuring Nigeria’s prince of street pop, Seyi Vibez. The incomprehensible words in the first half of the track may prove to be a linguistic hurdle for foreign listeners – and even Nigerians – but the highly addictive Amapiano beat compensates for the aforementioned challenge.
Unlike the energetic club anthem that “Giza” is, the guitar ballad, “If I’m Lying,” tends to comfort the heartbroken in a manner analogous with “Alone” and “How Bad Could It Be” – with the latter positioned in a similar manner in “Love Damini.”
If the album were to end on this note, most Nigerians would find it a satisfying conclusion. But it seems Burna waits for listeners to get too comfortable before returning his built-up anger with a resounding knock-out blow in “Thanks.” The track begins with the iconic “Finish him!” from “Mortal Kombat”, setting the tone for Burna Boy’s retaliation against Nigerians who have criticized him relentlessly and, in his eyes, shown ingratitude despite his efforts to make the nation proud. His concern is misguided as he places himself above constructive criticism–a pitfall most celebrities fall into–even though it might be unintended.
It is truly a shame as it’s an otherwise interesting Afro-pop record. “Is this the motherf***ing thanks I get for making my people proud I get?,” he questions. Perhaps he should direct it to the Nigerian folks whom he left standing for hours at concerts due to his late arrivals, or those whose skulls have endured the most of his boots. Worse still, he involves J. Cole in what should be a family affair between him and Nigerians. The result is J Cole, one of the greatest lyricists in the game, sounding pitifully disconnected. The controversial accusations in “Thanks” truly undermine the listener’s appreciation of the closing track, “Talibans II,” a remix of the Byron Messia sensational hit.
“I Told Them” blends Afrobeats with hip hop, drill, and Nigerian highlife (“Afrofusion” as he calls it) into a bittersweet concoction that fails to deliver the best of these musical worlds in the way that “Love Damini” did. Although bolstered by Burna Boy’s top-notch lyricism and solid production, the album leaves nothing exciting for listeners. Instead, it is lost in self-appraisal, lacking the relatability of his previous projects–it is difficult to ignore the “God-above-all” vibe it gives. The best songs are those that avoid this trap (“Cheat On Me,” “If I’m Lyin” and “Giza”). Moreover, the incorporation of kung fu sounds feels like he’s going to war on two fronts–himself and Nigerians.
“I Told Them” should have marked a phase in Burna Boy’s remarkable career, where, just like a proud father looking at his matured children, he sits back and basks in his well-deserved achievements. However, his towering ego gets in the way, turning what appeared to be a promising plan on paper into the worst of his last four albums.