The seventh studio album from Burna Boy is by no means terrible, but for one that proclaims to make a grand statement about how far the Nigerian hitmaker has come, it’s not one to shout about the loudest. Read our I Told Them… review.
Nigeria’s musical prince Burna Boy ran into some apparent hot water in the run-up to his latest album after telling Zane Lowe he thinks the Afrobeats genre lacks a real connection to everyday life.
“Most Nigerian music, African Music, or Afrobeats, as people call it, is mostly about nothing, literally nothing,” he said during Lowe’s often insightful Apple Music series. “There is no substance to it… nobody is talking about anything. It’s just a great time, an amazing time. But at the end of the day, life isn’t an amazing time.”
Sure, his words might have provoked the ire of some Afrobeat enthusiasts, but it’s worth listening to a figure who has done infinitely more than most to promote not just a genre but a wave of popularity for the music of an entire continent in recent years. (And it’s equally worth noting a news item from the likes of NME these days seems publishable simply because, well, a couple of people Tweeted about something).
The fact is, Burna Boy – real name, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu – has a point. Suffering is the basis of the very best art. And whilst we can all do with an escapist, upbeat groove, which Afrobeat provides aplenty, there’s far more nourishment for the soul beneath such sun-kissed anthems.
The problem with Burna Boy’s I Told Them is it’s neither here nor there when it comes to being either an album of rich, human connection or feelgood hedonism. Perhaps the African Giant’s seventh studio album will mark something of a pivot towards a more immersive approach to album creation, but at present, a lot of it is bland and forgettable.
It doesn’t possess the enveloping quality of an album where the artist feels entirely consumed by their project (Travis Scott’s recent Utopia, for instance), nor does it mesmerise you with silky melodies like countryman WizKid’s latest album More Love, Less Ego. Instead, it feels somewhat caught between different sonic worlds.
At its core, the main thread holding the album together is its theme of self-belief. I Told Them, as Burna also explained to Lowe, is titled as a message to all those who doubted him; its album sleeve a self-ascribed cover star who might as well be saying, “look at me now”. Album announcer ‘Big 7’ set out this central premise, referring to the artist’s seven records- deep catalogue. Yet despite its self-confidence, this central subject matter doesn’t do enough to bring the tracks into a cohesive line.
Granted, there are some standout moments. ‘On Form’ is jazzy and textured enough to warrant its message of an artist at the top of their game; ‘Tested, Approved & Trusted’ combines the soulful with the sultry; and it’s hard to ever dismiss Dave’s fine balance of humble bravado (and his Asamaoh Gyan reference), which features on ‘Cheat On Me’.
‘If I’m Lying’, meanwhile, adds a balearic acoustic and choral reverb to what might just be Burna’s most poetically-penned lyrics to date. This is the sort of spirited, absorbing number with a substance Burna said was lacking among similar work in his field.
Yet these tracks can be enjoyed in isolation, lacking the satisfaction derived when moving from one track smoothly to its subsequent. And there are some lacklustre periods, too. You can largely give most opening tracks the benefit of the doubt as merely a bit of scene-setting, but here, the beginning and title track are half-asleep.
‘Dey Play’ doesn’t sound like anything especially original, nor does wishy-washy ‘City Boys’. The album’s midpoint reference to the late Virgil Abloh is a moment’s reflection but ultimately little more than a pre-recorded message.
And perhaps the clearest representation of the album is its other two notable features. 21 Savage’s addition to noughties hip-hop-inspired ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’ adds further clout to the growing consensus that not every new, big-swinging album has to feature the London-born, Atlanta-raised rapper. Meanwhile, J.Cole’s passing feature on album closer ‘Thanks’ marks a rare moment when he doesn’t uplift a track he features on. Neither song fully uses the high-flying name’s skillsets and falls into the same sense of underwhelming across the record.
I Told Them isn’t a bad record per se, however. And its central theme is a commendable one. But for a project that professes to be a grand statement to everyone who never believed in him, Burna Boy has plenty of other superior works to shout about – not least last year’s Love, Damini.