The distance between Burna Boy’s fame in Africa and the west was starkly drawn on the poster for this year’s Coachella festival, where to his dismay he appeared four lines down the bill. “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means,” he wrote on Instagram, tongue perhaps in cheek. “Fix tings quick please.”
Indeed, in his native Nigeria he is one of the country’s biggest pop stars, and was named best international act at this year’s BET awards. After a previous album featuring UK stars Lily Allen, J Hus and Mabel, African Giant secures big US names: Future, YG and Jeremih, while Jorja Smith, Damian Marley and Angélique Kidjo all crop up too. It comes at a time when numerous black artists are audibly acknowledging their African roots, and so should be set to kick him up a font size on festival posters everywhere. And yet there’s perhaps something a little unassuming about it to secure true crossover potential.
That’s not for a lack of charm or songwriting. Burna’s voice is beautiful, all earnest entreaties sung right next to your ear, with a tiny hint of roughness as if with a single brush of sandpaper. He can make the promise to “smack your booty and choke ya” sound selflessly romantic on Secret, and specialises in rounded minor-key melodies, firm yet delicate (particularly fine are those on Collateral Damage, Omo and Dangote).
The sometimes quite retro Afro-pop production can get generic though, when repeated across 19 tracks – the bright, throbbing electronic backing for Destiny makes you long for a bit more breadth – and the English language lyrics can lapse into rap cliche. Burna is unable to take his eyes off a woman in a club, and so forth, though this bland escapism is hard-earned. As he sings on the title track: “Tell ’em Africa we done dying.” The more pointed lines are saved for his fellow Nigerians: his musings on post-colonialism on Another Story are in pidgin English, a neat bit of cultural reclamation.
That unfamiliarity, and his sensual, even rather muted music, may make it hard for him to cut through the noise of western pop culture – but this makes for a classy summer soundtrack.