Burna Boy Faces Success And Reflects On “Love, Damini”
“Fame puts you where things are hollow,” sang David Bowie in 1975, and many artists, before and after, have discovered the same thing. Their songs display outsized ambitions and premature bragging at the start of careers. But then success, if it happens, brings just as many pressures and benefits – and, sometimes, a new willingness to face apprehensions.
Burna Boy – Nigerian songwriter Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu – has gradually risen to international stardom over a decade of recording. In April, as part of their final world tour, they became the first Nigerian band to headlining the arena at Madison Square Gardenfeaturing a cameo appearance – an endorsement of the older generation – from Senegal’s longtime musical ambassador, Youssou N’Dour.
Burna Boy’s sixth studio album, “Love, Damini”, is a real treasure: 19 songs in their own right. He has summoned an international list of collaborators, including makers of blockbuster hits – J Balvin and Ed Sheeran – as well as Khalid, Kehlani, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jamaican singer Popcaan and British rapper J Hus. And like Burna Boy’s previous album, the 2020 Grammy “Twice as Big” his new scrolls both his accomplishments and admits the doubts and regrets of an obsessive achiever.
Burna Boy calls his music Afrofusion. Its core is the elegantly minimal – hand-played and electronic – percussion of Nigerian afrobeats, which uses impacts and silences to imply three-on-two syncopations. Encouraged by some of Africa’s most inventive producers, Burna Boy connects Afrobeats to its cousins around the world: R&B, Jamaican dancehall, reggaeton, Congolese rumba, hip-hop and more. His voice, a velvety baritone, has a suave poise that can hint at easy assurance or wistful reticence, and if his melodies don’t immediately sound sharp, he places each note to add another layer of polyrhythm.
The music derives its delight from every strategic detail: from the weaving of sampled and echoing choruses in “Different Size”, to the percussive syllables that break up the title and chorus of “Kilometer,” reverse guitar tones and distant reggae horns in “Jagele”, saxophone flourishes that respond to his voice in “Common Person”. The surfaces are shiny and reassuring; the cogs are sneakily playful. But Burna Boy broods more than he celebrates.
In “Glory”, the album’s opening song, Burna Boy promises “This is my story”; it begins with the restrained South African harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, before piano chords ring out and Burna Boy sings that he’s ‘had nightmares of the day I fall’.
His guests often join him as fellow travelers. Khalid sings in the anthem “Wild Dreams,” as Burna Boy urges listeners to dream big but ends with a warning: “Remember Martin Luther King had a dream and then he got shot.” J Balvin trades verses with him in “Rollercoaster,” a bilingual Afrobeats-dembow medley, with Burna Boy expressing his gratitude, giving up “the fast life” to be “pure in heart” and resigning himself to ups and downs. And with Ed Sheeran, he shares “For My Hand,” a wedding-song-worthy vow of mutual devotion in tough times, singing “Every time I’m broken, you make me feel whole.”
Work-life imbalance destroys a romance in “Last Last” the most restless song on the album; over nervously strummed minor chords and a sampled vocal phrase “He Wasn’t Man Enough” by Toni Braxton Burna Boy sings “I put my life in my job/And I know I’m in trouble.” In “It’s Plenty”, he notes, “I don’t wanna waste my days / I wanna spend them having fun”, but the production keeps the bouncy track at bay, and soon Burna Boy apologizes -” I don’t know how to show you my love” – and feeling numb and compulsive: “No matter what I do, it’s not enough. In ‘How Bad Could It Be’, in the middle of guitar playing crystal clear and in ghostly female voices, it is more compelling when detailing depression, alienation and anxiety than it is with the song’s half-hearted advice: “When you feel as sad as you may feel/Say, ‘How bad could this be?’
He has other concerns, such as the smog in his home town of Port Harcourt. “Because of oil and gas, my town is so dark/Pollution makes the air black,” he sings in “Whiskey,” a mid-tempo track punctuated by horn section samples on sound. vintage and stealthy guitar passages. And even when he promises carnal delights — in “Dirty Secrets,” “Science,” and “Toni-Ann Singh” — they’re mixed with minor chords and ominous undercurrents.
On “Love, Damini,” Burna Boy could easily have congratulated himself and strutted through new conquests instead of looking within. But even now, he’s not satisfied enough with himself to celebrate – not this time.
“I love you, Damini”