Who does Burna Boy want to be?
The artist is poised to become a superstar, but on his latest album Love, Damini his mission lacks clarity.
Love, Damini opens with the vocal harmonies of the reverent South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gently murmuring, “This is my story.” Burna Boy certainly has a phenomenal tale to share: The Nigerian artist’s rise has been meteoric in the three years since releasing the sonic triumph that was his fourth studio album, African Giant, in July 2019. The prince of Port Harcourt followed the album’s critical acclaim with multiple BET awards and a World Music Grammy for his subsequent record, Twice As Tall, which was boosted by a (hotly-debated) executive production assist from P. Diddy. The titanic collaborations continued: A feature on South African artist Master KG’s “Jerusalema” with a stunning verse in Zulu took over the summer of 2020, and the self-declared father of Afro-fusion was the only artist to have a solo track on Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack album. His guest spots were elevated by a seemingly endless string of shows and a world tour, including an unprecedented and transcendent night of magic at Madison Square Garden as the mecca’s first Nigerian headliner.
Burna Boy promised that his sixth album — titled after his birth name, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, and arriving on the heels of his 31st birthday — would be his most personal. It would presumably be a reflection on Burna’s momentous journey, replete with all the musical flourishes that have earned him his global reach and fanbase. True to his word, the record does have a more intimate touch, but it falls short of the cohesion one would expect from an artist at such a transformative point in their career; poor sequencing, shoddy skits, and unambitious choices belabor Love, Damini’s 19-track runtime.
It’s both a gift and a curse that Burna Boy is a once-in-a-generation talent: Even at his worst, he effortlessly runs laps around many other artists, discovering unique ways to integrate various musical genres into his sonic foundation, while still deferring to collaborators’ cultural norms and linguistic preferences. Greatness, however, can breed complacency when unchallenged. While there may not be any technically bad songs on Love, Damini, the album lacks intentionality and meticulousness. There’s a strong sense that numerous leftovers from African Giant or Twice as Tall were merely inserted here for fan service, while the remainder plays with more contemporary sounds, global trends, and themes in Burna’s life. As a general listening experience, it’s enjoyable; as a complete piece of art for someone of his caliber, it’s unfulfilling.
A perfect example of this is the Popcaan feature on “Toni-Ann Singh,” Burna’s first collaboration with the Jamaican dancehall artist. Their vocals complement each other perfectly, as Popcaan’s gravelly inflections jut up against Burna’s dulcet tones in a combination meant for late, steamy nights on the dance floor. But despite the complementary pairing, both the production and sound feel dated. On “Science,” he is cocksure and magnetic, evoking similar beats as African Giant’s “On the Low.” The sonics of “Cloak & Dagger” with afro-swing pioneer J Hus – one of the stronger songs on the album – most directly invoke the aural soundscape of Twice as Tall, making its transition to the subsequent “Kilometre” (newly mixed for album quality) feel abrupt.
“Last Last” has been a standout lead single; its dynamic use of a Toni Braxton “He Wasn’t Man Enough” sample paired with deeply emotional lyrics place it in the running for song of the summer. But where “Last Last” is sentimental about love and heartbreak, “How Good Can It Be” is bizarrely vindictive, confusingly couching the melody in between star-studded skits that detract more than they add value. (It’s not the only such skit that does this, either; “Wild Dreams (feat. Khalid)” ends with a reflection on Martin Luther King that’s a far cry from the Unilever narrative that kicked off African Giant’s “Another Story.”) Perhaps this is intended to offer space to the full range of emotions experienced in heartbreak, but absent the curation needed to execute this with precision, it’s difficult to offer Burna the benefit of the doubt. Despite this disruption, the album has other high moments: “Whiskey” and “Common Person” emerge as highlights, with personalized horn instrumentation and politically nuanced lyricism.
Love, Damini’s most interesting points reflect an evolution in Burna’s sound. “Solid (feat Blxst & Kehlani)” is the closest Burna has come to making a straight R&B record, while still retaining West African flourishes with the five-count beat and guitar; “For My Hand” is a blatant but well-executed grab at a big world music hit for Burna and Ed Sheeran, following the formula his mentor Angelique Kidjo has executed to success years over. Burna sounds at ease in the Afro-piano track “Different Size (feat. Victony),” with the Squid Game doll sample serving as a distracting layer in an otherwise thrilling song. Burna does a masterful job of bringing J. Balvin into his ecosystem for “Rollercoaster”; if one were to nitpick, I would have selfishly preferred if he chose an AfroLatinx artist, such as Ozuna or Sech, for his first major collaboration in the Latin world — but the duo pair nicely.
At the close of the album, I’m left wondering who Burna wants to be — both as an artist and as a person. It’s a question he seems to continuously struggle with as he comes of age and into his purpose: Is he a megastar or a messenger? Is he aiming to become an African artist or an artist from Africa? By his own admission on the concluding “Love, Damini,” Burna is consistently felled by his own pride, anger, and egotism; the track is the closest we’ve gotten to public acknowledgment of his flaws and dust-ups, the impacts of which will become larger in scope as his star inevitably continues to rise. On “Cloak & Dagger,” he says that “success is all I want;” by the end of “Love, Damini,” he’s trying to be a better man.
Contradiction is human, but instead of using the album to reflect a man as he gains clarity from the journey through these interrogations, Burna instead revisits the well without much additional insight. My biggest fear for an artist of his stature is a lack of accountability and the temptation to rest on his laurels; fortunately, Burna will always make sure that no matter what, his music will provide an entertaining musical experience, if not an especially rewarding one.