“Fame puts you where things are hollow,” David Bowie sang in 1975, and many artists, before and after, have discovered the same. Their songs bear witness to outrageous ambitions and make premature brags as careers begin. But then success, when it happens, brings just as much pressure and benefits—and sometimes a new willingness to face doubts.
Burna Boy – Nigerian songwriter Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu – has steadily grown to international fame in over a decade of recording time. In April, as part of his final world tour, he became the first Nigerian act to star in the Madison Square Garden arena, with a cameo appearance – an older generation endorsement – from Senegal’s longtime musical ambassador, Youssou. N’Dour.
Burna Boy’s sixth studio album, ‘Love, Damini’, is a treasure trove of material: 19 full songs. He assembled an international roster of collaborators, including blockbuster hitmakers – J Balvin and Ed Sheeran – along with Khalid, Kehlani, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jamaican singer Popcaan and British rapper J Hus. And like Burna Boy’s previous album, the Grammy-winning 2020 “Twice as Tall,” his new one showcases both his achievements and the doubts and regrets of an obsessive achiever.
Burna Boy calls his music Afrofusion. At its core is the elegantly minimal percussion – played by hand and electronically – of Nigerian afrobeats, who use impacts and silences to imply three-on-two syncopation. Powered by some of Africa’s most inventive producers, Burna Boy connects Afrobeats with its global kin: R&B, Jamaican dancehall, reggaeton, Congolese rumba, hip-hop and more. His voice, a velvety baritone, has a soft composure that can indicate easy self-assurance or a melancholic restraint, and while his melodies don’t seem sharp right away, he sets each note to add another layer of polyrhythm.
The music takes pleasure in every strategic detail: from the fabric of sampled and echoing backing vocals in “Different Size”, from the percussive syllables that cut through the title and chorus of “Kilometer”, from inverted guitar tones and distant reggae horns in “Jagele”, from the saxophone curls that answer his voice in ‘Common Person.’ The surfaces are glossy and reassuring, the inner workings are slyly playful.But Burna Boy broods more than he celebrates.
In “Glory”, the album’s opening track, Burna Boy promises “This is my story”; it opens with the austere South African harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, before piano chords ring out and Burna Boy sings that he “had nightmares from the day I fell off.”
His guests often accompany him as fellow strivers. Khalid sings in the hymn “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 was shot.” J Balvin trades verses with him in “Rollercoaster,” a bilingual mix of Afrobeats-dembow, where Burna Boy expresses gratitude, renounces “the fast life” to be “pure hearted” and resigns himself to ups and downs. And with Ed Sheeran, he shares “For My Hand,” a wedding song-worthy vow of mutual devotion through hard times, as he sings, “When I’m broken, I feel whole.”
Work-life imbalance destroys a romance in “Last Last,” the album’s most excited track; over nervously plucked minor chords and a vocal phrase sampled from Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough”, Burna Boy sings: “I put my life in my job/And I know I’m in trouble.” In “It’s Plenty”, he remarks, “I don’t want to waste my days / I want to spend them having fun”, but the production keeps the bouncy castle at bay, and soon Burna Boy apologizes – “Don’t know how I got you my can show love” – and feel numb and compulsive: “Whatever I do, it’s not enough.” In “How Bad Could It Be,” amid crystal-clear guitar picks and haunting female voices, he’s more convincing describing depression, alienation, and anxiety than he is with the song’s half-hearted advice: “When you feel as sad as you can feel /Say , ‘How bad can it be?’”
He has other concerns, such as the smog in Nigeria’s capital Lagos and Burna Boy’s current hometown. “Because of oil and gas, my town is so dark/pollution that the sky is turning black,” he sings in “Whiskey,” a mid-tempo track punctuated by vintage-sounding horn section samples and surreptitious guitar runs. And even when he promises carnal delights — in “Dirty Secrets,” “Science” and “Toni-Ann Singh” — they are mixed with minor chords and ominous undertones.
On “Love, Damini,” Burna Boy could have easily congratulated himself and endured new conquests instead of looking inward. But even now, he’s not smug enough to party — not this time.