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Sanmi Okele

“Me I no come here to make song to make you dance Azonto, iyen o wu mi loju”, Burna Boy keeps repeating on Koni Baje, the third song on his most recent project, Outside. It’s a line that’s immensely important (the rough English translation is “I’m not here to make songs to make you dance Azonto, that doesn’t interest me”) in that it’s both a statement, and effectively a brief description of how Burna sees himself in the Nigerian music industry: an outsider.

It’s no surprise, because he’s always been that way. In fact, the value of the acceptance of the music he released early in his career – the Burn Notice, Burn Identity mixtapes, and L.I.F.E days – was that his songs occupied the unique space of sounding a bit different from the norm, and familiar at the same time. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as the music is good, it’s easy to forget that Burna Boy railed against the entire Nigerian music industry for the most part of 2013-2015, reportedly being highly disillusioned after feeling like industry politics played a role in him not winning the Next Rated category at the 2013 Headies; an award he felt he deserved. This attitude can appear a bit heady and entitled at times, but it is this utmost confidence in his talent and ability that’s made him experiment with varying genres of music and still always, somehow, manage to always sound goo ...

“Me I no come here to make song to make you dance Azonto, iyen o wu mi loju”, Burna Boy keeps repeating on Koni Baje, the third song on his most recent project, Outside. It’s a line that’s immensely important (the rough English translation is “I’m not here to make songs to make you dance Azonto, that doesn’t interest me”) in that it’s both a statement, and effectively a brief description of how Burna sees himself in the Nigerian music industry: an outsider.

It’s no surprise, because he’s always been that way. In fact, the value of the acceptance of the music he released early in his career – the Burn Notice, Burn Identity mixtapes, and L.I.F.E days – was that his songs occupied the unique space of sounding a bit different from the norm, and familiar at the same time. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as the music is good, it’s easy to forget that Burna Boy railed against the entire Nigerian music industry for the most part of 2013-2015, reportedly being highly disillusioned after feeling like industry politics played a role in him not winning the Next Rated category at the 2013 Headies; an award he felt he deserved. This attitude can appear a bit heady and entitled at times, but it is this utmost confidence in his talent and ability that’s made him experiment with varying genres of music and still always, somehow, manage to always sound good.

Just saying Burna Boy is a talent kind of belittles just how good he actually is. While the local and international music spotlight might be shared right now – deservedly – between his good friends and counterparts Wizkid and Davido, it really isn’t an unpopular opinion for those that follow the Naija music industry to suggest that Burna is the most talented of the three. After all, this was a guy that had 3 certified national chart-toppers – Yawa Dey, Roses, Tonight – in 2013; all songs ranging in different styles, you could almost be forgiven to think they were sung by different artistes. He also has arguably a classic album in 2013’s L.I.F.E. Despite all these, it’s strange Outside now feels like it’s the first time he’s getting the recognition he deserves. Several factors can be brought up in trying to understand why it’s really happening for him now, but probably nothing explains it better than that this is a musician that right now has accepted his distinct artistry, and relegated everything else to the background. He’s finally understood the unwritten rule: if the music is good, the recognition will come – whether that’s by Nigerians or a secondary market.

It helps that he’s already built a solid platform of being versatile without compromising quality. So when he released melancholic hued “Pree Me” in 2016, and most of the comments under that Noisey video were either about him sounding like Drake, or that Drake was going to jack his style soon, it was only proper he and Drake linked up to work together. Burna says Drake shared his vision to collect worldwide sounds in a playlist, and their collaboration resulted in him penning 5 songs for More Life. We now know what eventually came of that, but this isn’t a Burna that focuses on disappointments.

Outside – as a project – excels as a hybrid of all the sounds Burna Boy has been interested in up until this point in his ever flexible career. It doesn’t seem forced, and is delicately balanced to an almost perfect extent. There’s a “More Life” here whose full version frankly wouldn’t have been out of place on Drake’s playlist. “Devil In California” follows in this mould and even gives off PARTYNEXTDOOR sensations with its sing-rap flow coated with alternative R&B production. ”Ph City Vibration” is an immediate highlight as well. Port-Harcourt – one of Nigeria’s biggest cities – is where he grew up and the song serves as an ode to this place, complete with visual references (“I no dey stay too far from Liberation//Me go to Rumumasi when I get spiritual”) and Ajegunle-inspired reggae. “Ye” flows into “Giddem”, following each other in the tracklist, and they are both probably the standout tracks. “Ye” interpolates elements of Fela’s “Sorrow, Tears and Blood”, emphasizing the spirit of the Nigerian hustle (“My nigga what’s it gon’ be, G-Wagon or de Bentley// I no fit die for nothing”), while “Giddem” boasts about how good his life is, both similar in the pre-eminent use of instrumentation in their production.

He goes left field the most on the Lily Allen featured “Heaven’s Gate” and “Streets of Africa”. “Heaven’s Gate” is Burna’s best Shabba Ranks impression on here, with the use of slack lyricism reminiscent of the Jamaican reggae legend, while “Streets of Africa” mixes a trap flow with a bouncy pop beat. They are both huge risks, but Burna doesn’t exist in the space of playing safe. “Rock Your Body” and “Sekkle Down” are fan favourites, and an exercise in easy romantic listens. They act as a balance on a project that is littered with songs that are their polar opposites.

Not all of the album’s experimentation comes out good though. “Calm Down” maybe has a nice idea behind it, but could have been better executed. Disappointingly, the meta track is a bit bland and maybe EDM, for all of Burna’s talents, is a genre he should better not touch for now. However, this is understandable. Despite the semantics surrounding what an album is nowadays, this isn’t one. And for a project that isn’t an album, this is a solid body of work. He’ll learn from the few missteps, and it’s certain that it can only get better from here.

Overall, Outside gives a glimpse into Burna Boy’s own plan to take his music far and beyond the shores of Africa. He’s undoubtedly one of Nigeria’s music luminaries right now, and his ability to expertly navigate that line between originality and borrowed influence is potentially ground-breaking. He’s commanded everyone’s attention now, and they’ll be watching closely from now on.

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