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Review: On ‘Twice as Tall’, Burna Boy bends Afrobeats to his will

With Twice As Tall, his follow-up to the breakthrough African Giant, Afrobeats star Burna Boy does some battling with his famed ego.

His new album — released on Friday — is his fifth studio recording, and brings with it the top billing guaranteed by financial and strategic backing from Diddy, with the record industry mogul being one of the executive producers on the project. 

One of the things Diddy’s pedigree buys the artist are big-name American producers, such as Anderson .Paak and Timbaland, with the latter contributing his own take on Afrobeats on the compelling Wetting Dey Sup. But there is a sense that these are nice-to-haves as opposed to being vital to the trajectory of Burna Boy’s already sure-footed career. 

Diddy’s congratulatory hype aside, there is a vulnerability to Twice As Tall, even as it fires shots directed at haters and naysayers, and timely (if obligatory) reflections on equal rights and police brutality.

With the ubiquity of African Giant being capped off by JA ARA E, the laidback, solo feature on the Beyoncé-helmed The Lion King: The Gift, Burna is also eager to party. But that collected, contemplative demeanour suggested by JA ARA E works its way into Twice As Tall’s life-of-the-party instincts, toning the volume down a little bit, as indicated by the vocally lush, and delicately percussive Time Flies (featuring Sauti Sol). The dance floor awaits, it seems, but there is also the gravity and temporality of the moment to contend with.

At this juncture, Burna Boy should be feeling ten feet tall. He had to swallow humble pie in 2019 after a Twitter beef with South African artist AKA — one that got caught up in the fake news storm that was the late-year xenophobic attacks in South Africa — led to some cancelled performances and, perhaps more damagingly, a questioning of his political astuteness. 

But that’s in the past, and songs like Level Up, employing the reliable vocal services of Youssou N’Dour to help to craft a luxurious, unhurried dancehall-esque testament to his mettle, can be read as a settling of a score.

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There is lots of sheen and polish on the album, with each song, it seems, staking its own fresh claim on the sonic palette that constitutes Afrobeats. The formula, if it exists, is putty in Burna’s hands. There are overtures to hip-hop (such as Naughty By Nature, featuring Naughty by Nature) and even Michael Jackson, with the Chris Martin-featuring Monsters You Made seeming to take melodic cues from The Gloved One’s Dirty Diana. These stadium jams, although not predominant, are not jarringly at odds with the sparse polyrhythms more commonplace in Afrobeats, found in songs such as Comma.

In this sense, Twice As Tall is not unchecked expansionism. There is still a sense that Burna Boy has a core constituency with whom common ground is still important. This sentiment is strong on songs such as No Fit Vex, with its ruminations fitting ones for the album’s lockdown recording environment.

Ultimately, Burna Boy’s politics, though, remain difficult to pinpoint. What the lockdown reflections (at least as evinced by the album) reveal is a man whose musing stem from an earnest place. Whether he has figured out a formula to infuse these organically into his music and persona, beyond his efforts up to now, is up for debate. But as long as he can serve up those understated, kaleidoscopic melodies and effortless phrases, world domination is assured.

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