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If any song on Burna Boy’s new album, Twice As Tall, can be considered its (and his) mission statement, it’s the fiery “Monsters You Made,” featuring Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Over a riff on Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” indicating Burna’s willingness to wear his influences on his sleeve and court global approval, Burna takes Western colonialism of Africa to task, excoriating the external influences that have exploited the continent and its people for the last several hundred years. “Dem European teachings in my African school,” he barks. “So fuck the classes in school.”
This is a Burna Boy who’s learned a hard lesson in the years since his song “Ye” accidentally went viral and introduced Afro-fusion to the world at large. On the album’s intro, “Level Up (Twice As Tall),” Burna addresses the slight that fuels the album’s more pugnacious tone; “’Cause the Grammys had me feeling sick as fuck,” he laments, “Throwing up and shit / Asking questions like, ‘Why it wasn’t us?’” In a way, Burna’s plight is reflective of the world into which Twice As Tall was born. While news anchors question the methods of protestors as cities worldwide burn, the protestors defiantly fire back with reminders that they already asked nicely.
In hindsight, perhaps that was the point of African Giant, Burna Boy’s initial foray into the Western mainstream with his unapologetic presentation of African-ness. Knowing that his blended Pidgin English and Yoruba lyricism and “exotic”-seeming videos might intimidate or confuse his newly engaged audience, he presented them all to us with a smile and a handshake, a joyful celebration of his ideal of a unified Africa (and by extension, a unified diaspora). Of course, he knew all along what the results might be — but still, he had to try it the easy way first.
Twice As Tall is what happens when the “phone voice” version doesn’t achieve the desired result. It’s the musical equivalent of putting some bass in your tone to remind the audience who the boss is — or should be. Reflecting and perhaps trying to mitigate this new, combative stance, Burna employs a familiar Black American producer to play both diplomat and military advisor. Sean “Diddy” Combs gives American audiences a friendly face to latch onto, but he also spends much of the album rallying behind Burna’s aggressive approach. “Sometimes you’re in a situation where you have no choice,” he warns in the intro. “You have to fight.”
Burna plays with this dynamic throughout the project, showing his American audience his American influences to put them at ease, then baring his teeth — although whether he’s smiling or snarling seems to largely depend on which portion of that audience he’s addressing from track to track. He does the former on the aptly-titled “Naughty Nature,” bringing in the classic rap act for which the track is named in a nod to the first English song he ever memorized word-for-word: Naughty By Nature’s iconic party anthem, “Hip Hop Hooray.” Here, he’s having the time of his life, showing flashes of the easygoing nature that African Giant employed to bridge the cultural gap.
Likewise, on “No Fit Vex,” he expresses “no hard feelings,” as though speaking to an estranged relation… much like the kinship between native Africans and their far removed Black American cousins. But then on tracks like “Monsters You Made” and to a lesser extent, “23”, “Real Life,” and “Bank On It,” he exposes the scars that such a stance requires him to hide. “Bebo,” a slang term meaning something like an untrustworthy leech, could just as easily be a stand-in for the colonial powers Burna spends much of the album lambasting. On “Comma,” he co-opts familiar American slang and flips it, transforming it to side-eye the baggage that comes with the flex. As he explained to Apple Music: “A ‘comma’ the way we would use it to say something but then explain stuff that comes after it as the comma. Like the baggage, or everything else that comes with it that’s not quite right—that’s the comma. So I might say, ‘I’ve got a plan and the money’s gonna come…but there’s [a] comma.’”
In pointing out the commas adjacent to commercial success, Burna subtly reminds listeners that there’s always a dark side to everything they enjoy. In his case, his danceable Afro-fusion isn’t just a new musical craze for them to latch onto for a while — there is a history and a legacy behind it. You can’t engage the art without engaging the artists who make it, and that means a lot of uncomfortable context. You won’t always get it with a smile and a handshake either. Sometimes, those artists find themselves in situations where they have no choice. In those cases, you must be prepared for a fight.
Twice As Tall is out now via Atlantic Records. You can stream or download it here.
Burna Boy is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.