Burna Boy’s “Twice as Tall”: A masterclass of artistic appropriation – Toni Kan
TS Eliot once wrote that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take and good poets make it into something better or at least something different.”
He was speaking of ‘stealing’ in the context of cultural and artistic appropriation that which comes from what he would later refer to as a melding of “tradition and the individual talent.”
When an artiste understands the tradition in which s/he operates, s/he is better able to appropriate without coming off as a petty thief.
This is critical in appreciating Burna Boy’s latest album, the record shattering “Twice as Tall” which is a master class of cultural and artistic appropriation. It is an album chockful of influences dating as far back as 50s all the way to last month; Burna Boy has filched influences from far and near and what comes up is a delightful mélange of sounds.
The language is afrofusion but there are lingering tonalities that speak to r’n’b, hip hop, children’s rhymes, afrobeat and afrobeats as well as reggae and dancehall with sprinklings of highlife. This is an album made to please all men in every clime.
Pat Boone’s ditty opens the album on the first track on which Burna has enlisted Youssou N’dour who sings in wolof. Burna Boy, in opening with Pat Boone, a touch which I am willing to wager might have been suggested by Diddy, travels the same trajectory that Jay Z did with “Hard Knock Life” which appropriated a popular children’s song from Annie and exploited it as intro to a monster hit. Another example would be Nas on his children friendly song, “I Can” which opens with a nimble sample of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”
By travelling this trajectory Burna Boy is doing two things; angling for white ears and dollars by sending a familair ear worm; secondly he is showing us what what happens when talent meets direction. What results is a world class buffet.
The first two songs are, in my considered opinion, the weakest links in a strong chain. There is scant chemistry between Burna and Yossou and it is clear that their bits were recorded separately and then pieced together. This is common these days but it shows.
Alarm clock on the other hand seems forced. It is a wake up call that almost manages to send you to sleep. Diddy’s adlib doesnt help either. It appears tacked on. One feels that he was trying to replicate his turn on the Notorious BIG’s hit “Going Back to Cali” but where it worked with BIG it falls flat with Burna.
So, let us begin with “Way Too Big” which is self-adulatory. On this track Mr. Damini Ogulu begins by patting himself on the back with “you know my style/no be jazz/dem dey sell am for ebay.”
But he is quick to warn that trying to emulate him could have dire consequences because “if you say you get mind/and you wan try/you go die iberibe…all of una wan combine/shey you wan try/oya do am e no easy.”
Having established that his string of successes has been like a landslide he declares that he is too “Way too big to be fucking with you.”
Shots fired we can then bob and dance along but keep in mind that the only place where success comes before hard work in the story of OluwaBurna is clearly, as they say, in the dictionary because in “Level Up he shares some stories from his early days of being broke: “I remember when I couldn’t level up/It was rough you see” to the present where he is feeling legendary and selling out the Wembley Arena.
“Wonderful” the lead off single from this album continues a preoccupation with his comparisons to men of means which began with “Dangote”. Here, Burna Boy in affirming his work ethic, insists that no one should call him lazy because he works hard just like Bayo Ogunlesi. True talk but someone might do well to tell Burna Boy that comparison is the biggest thief of joy.
“Real Life” is mellow and opens with an adlib by Diddy which doesn’t really speak to the message of the song. Here Burna Boy teams up with Stormzy for the second time (with Stormzy returning a favour) to provide a self-reflective take on the hustle, the success and the envy that comes with it. This is a theme that pervades the album.
“Real life is for living” Stormzy sings before Burna Boy tells us he is Destiny’s Child and nobody’s fool.
“Onyeka (Baby)” is a love song with a highlife flavor, peppered with references to Onyeka Onwenu and Osondi Owendi, the 80s monster hit by highlife maestro Osita Osadebe. His references to Osondi Owendi underlines the song’s main thesis which is a turpsy-turvy relationship with a love interest whom Burna warns that “if you use me shine I no go pick your call.”
“Naughty By Nature” evokes nostalgia taking one back to the 90s but before the real Naughty By Nature steps to the plate, Burna Boy wastes no time in sharing with us his grass to grace biography. He shares how he used to hustle for small change to make the commute back to the mainland but today when they see his Rolls Royce, he says Amen before warning that God will punish you if you don’t “gbadun” him.
But listen closely to this track and you can hear snippets of an old nursery rhyme – “Old Roger is Dead and laid in his grave/Hey ho, laid in his grave.” Compare that to Burna’s “Go ahead ask anybody my beginnings/Hmm ha, my beginnings.”
Treach and Co join the fray with their hard hitting style reminding us that they have been blessing our ear drums for 30 years plus, longer than Burna Boy has been on earth but guess who brings them back to the limelight. Oluwa is involved.
“Comma” is a feel good Afrobeats song made for the dance floor. The repitition of ‘comma’ provides a sing-along vibe but pay close attention and you will notice as Burna Boy segues into Makossa with a nod to Magic System’s “Gaou.” It is almost so imperceptible you could miss it.
On “No Fit Vex” Burna Boy unites with Leriq, the sonic architect of his debut album. The song sees Burna Boy taking it easy and waxing philosophical as he riffs on life and its vicissitudes. Addressing an unnamed friend he says “Life e no easy my brother/ You dey find your own, I dey find my own/I wanna hear better news about you../I dey see your struggle/I no fit vex for you.”
On a track produced by Leriq with whom many said Burna fell out makes one wonder whether this is a conciliatory song, one affirming that old relationships can be affected by time change and success. Could this be a make-up song and could the addressee be Leriq?
On “23” Burna Boy extends the metaphor a notch with a comparison to Jordan but the mellow vibe is an address to haters who he says are “identical to the devil” but then he is quick to tell his listeners that he deserves all the success he has earned.
“Time Flies” opens with a more percussive version of Sade Adu’s “Sweetest Taboo” layered over with Burna’s gruffy voice with a very forgettable line that earns Mr. Ogulu no songwriting plaudits. What exactly is “Time Flies like a thief in the night.”
Sauti Sol joins Burna Boy on this song and infuses it with some East African elan that manages to elevate it beyond Burna Boy’s so-so songwriting.
“Monsters You Made” is hard hitting and showcases Burna Boy at his most political yet. A self-confessed Fela Kuti acolyte, Burna Boy has never shied away from the issues of the day but on this track, he makes a song that is trenchant and direct and which throws away any artifice of success and self-absorption to speak truth to power with an intro from a Niger Delta activist.
But this is an ironic song in the sense that in indicting the colonial enterprise as the cause of Nigeria, nay Africa’s problems, he enlists a white man to sing the chorus. Chris Martin’s voice is the mediating essence on a song that takes no prisoners.
Burna Boy continues on that angry trajectory on “Wettin Dey Sup” which opens with directly explicit words that may not have been heard on a song since Brymo’s “Prick no get shoulder.” On this track he poses a rhetorical question that speaks to the quotidian reality of the streets while managing to keep it couched as an existential exegesis – what’s happening he asks but he is too impatient to wait for an answer before he reverts to type when he says “You’re waitin in vain, I’m overtaking again.”
“Bank on it” is a head bobbing song and a fitting end to an album that is, in many ways, a snapshot not just of a talented artist at the height of his powers but one who has come to a realization of the weight and power his talent and success and global appeal have set on his shoulders.
“We all strive for more/To live life inna comfort/So forgive me if I fumble/cause I am only human.”
In a prayer to his God, Burna Boy audits his progress and taking it slow he makes it clear that while success might be good and desirable it can leave the successful “paranoid and confused.”