“I Told Them…” Is Burna Boy’s Attempt To Gaslight An Entire Country

Posted on

Burna Boy’s seventh studio album, his ‘Big 7’, appears directed at the Nigerian audience, supposedly a tiny subsection has doubted his talent and world conquering credibility at every step, that he has now magnified and taken to represent the entire Nigerian populace. But then again, it really isn’t. It is evident in his use of the third person pronouns and not the second person, I Told Them… and not I Told You…, that he does not consider them—us—worthy of a direct reply, instead he looks to castigate us to some external, superior entity, the rest of the world. On Thanks, his narration of the grudge he holds against his people, he begins, frustrated, “Is this the motherfucking thanks I get for making my people proud every chance I get?”.

Cole, his partner on the track, mutters in sympathy, “cold world” and it makes for an interesting insight into Burna’s sense of responsibility. Burna Boy evidently regards himself as faultless in all the incidents that have deteriorated his public perception by Nigerians, so much so that he is comfortable bringing them up on Thanks. Production here is a joint effort by four different experienced hands, but minimalism is the watchword, so the track flourishes in lo-fi hand-beaten drums and overarching simple patterns provided by strings and keys. The kicks have been left unused, but neither Burna nor Cole need them, they brilliantly weld the song’s rhythm with just their vocal cadences. J. Cole even goes as far as stating on his verse that “Me and this beats is holy matrimony”, but although his contribution is sonically congruent, it does not properly fit into Burna’s intentions to make this song, and the album around it, an exaggerated “I told you so” to his enemies both real and imagined.  

That can be excused, J. Cole knows not of the nuances of the decade-long relationship between a country and one of its biggest acts, or of Burna’s cynical perspective of it that made him open this track with “This Naija, no love”. Burna Boy conveniently leaves out of the album certain contextual plot points that may help his understanding of his criticism, like when he showed up to a concert in Lagos seven hours late, acknowledging that he would never have bothered showing up at all were it not for Seyi Vibez, and then delayed his performance for a little longer while he hurled abuse at his own fans, accusing them of spreading the same rumours he repeated on Thanks. When he finally got the show together, he interrupted his performance to plant his boot in the face of a fan who got too close to the stage. 

But I Told Them… shows no indication that it aims to be a two-way conversation. Burna Boy drives his persecution complex to religious grounds on Cheat On Me, this time with Dave in tow. He says that “I be God’s son like Jesus”, while urging that “Before you start to criticise, consider o, consider”, as Brandy’s Cheating On Me loops in the background to provide a lo-fi Hip-hop framework. Sittin’ On Top Of the World shares these acoustic features, with a rapper recruited to interpolate with a sample, but here 21 Savage’s blasé verse pales in comparison to Dave’s and especially J. Cole’s. Brotherhood and community shine on the album: in collaborations like these, in his tributes to fallen friends Virgil Abloh and Sidhu Moose Wala, in the voice recordings of him hanging with his boys, and in the spoken word deliveries by GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan on the tracks 12 Jewels and I Told Them

On the titular track, he sings over hand-crafted percussion of a time when his foray into music was laughed off: “Told ’em I’m the master, they told me I wouldn’t prosper”, but it is hard to situate this period within his timeline of his career. Probably from before his debut album, Living an Impact For Eternity, his well-received announcement to the Nigerian audience, or perhaps from the time surrounding the release of his succeeding album, On A Spaceship. In this controversial period, when Burna was seen threatening bloggers, award shows and fellow artists, a journalist pointed out in an interview that Burna’s off-studio antics could undermine his obvious talent. Burna did not agree. He instead recorded this chastisement and made it his album opener.

Nearly ten years later, Burna’s capacity to recognise criticism as a product of his own actions has not grown, so while an outsider may be fascinated with the story of the mega-talented artist rejected by his own people, Nigerians know how inaccurate this narrative is. But the artist earmarks none of the album’s forty minutes to introspection. He does have time though, for conceited declarations of how much richer than the traducers he is, set to high energy pop drums that underline the pomposity behind each line. A trio of consecutive songs spin between Rap and Afropop, turning beat-heavy pizzazz into extravagant affronts on Nigeria’s charts and clubs—Big 7, Dey Play and City Boys—but Burna does not do a good job delineating them with his writing: for instance, he references his expensive Lamborghini in all three of them. 

On Normal, he brags about women this time, which makes for change but not a very progressive one. “Onе, two girls and I want them naked/ Monogamy’s overratеd”, he pronounces. The message in there is supposedly how his surfeit of women is indicative of the affluent life he lives now, how all this is “normal normal”, but thankfully he is able to counter this decadent view on more heartfelt romantic songs like “Tested, Approved And Trusted” and the soul-tugging “If I’m Lying”. His use of women as a symbol of wealth, in the same breath as Ferraris and Richard Milles, is common with Hip-hop artists, but Burna had successfully waded through six previous albums without having to rely on low hanging fruit like this. In the past, his larger than life self image was rooted in the superiority of his artistry and not material possession. It was this spirit that drove him to reject the small font size with which he was listed for a concert, as he proclaimed himself the African Giant

Burna’s new album is as buoyant and proud as is to be expected from him, but this time he centres himself at the expense of his African identity and political activism, so there is a gaping hole on the album where this would have been. This is of course due in part to I Told Them…’s belligerent nature—we cannot expect him to speak on our behalf while he is still cross with us. But more than this, the contradiction between the activist in the studio and the artist in real life has only grown with each new release. After Burna Boy had to be forced to half-heartedly comment on the last two most critical events in his home country—2020’s End SARS protests and the 2023 general elections, simply reheating a Fela sample from the archives to speak once more about how his people are suffering would have landed somewhere between unserious and downright insulting.

But even when Burna Boy cannot rely on his pan-African dogma, his industrious collaborative spirit persists. In the past, it allowed him to create remixes to songs like Jerusalema, Yaba Buluku and Sungba, ensuring his entry to the Amapiano genre was guided by experienced hands. He makes elegant attempts at genre-building on I Told Them…, most notably on Giza, which features Seyi Vibez. Seyi brings along his go-to producer, Modra, who builds his production on euphonious flutes, layered vocals, and a hint of Fuji in the drums, the elements that have propped up Seyi Vibez’s artistry for the past year. Burna, unsurprisingly, is comfortable even in unfamiliar territory, and it makes for one of the slickest collaborations on an album with plenty to choose from. Talibans II, his remix of Bryon Messia’s song of the summer contender, also makes a bonus appearance here, and not just for its slinky Dancehall production that Burna once more brilliantly owns, but for how his verse—“Anything I do, headline news/ Even wetin I no do them go say I do”—helps further his agenda. 

It appears that Burna Boy, having conquered all available opposition in the ascent to his current status, is in search of a new adversary, which he has now ascribed to his home country. In a way this was always going to happen. Burna once declared in the past that he is not a Nigerian artist, referring to how the income he receives from Nigeria barely makes a dent in his bottom line, and even then he saw some support, amid the backlash, for these ill-advised comments. With his most recent antics, though, he will struggle to find sympathy from anyone outside his core fanbase. 

This time he has distanced himself from Afrobeats as an umbrella term; in an interview with Zane Lowe of Apple music and on Thanks, he advances Afrofusion, his self-styled alternative. But a confusion exists because there is no definition for Afrofusion, including one provided by Burna himself, that would not fit perfectly as a definition for Afrobeats, and because there are parts of his discography that would fall cleanly into the music he derides. In the interview, he takes the extra step of declaring the music of his compatriots to be of “no substance”, adding that “it’s just about a great time, an amazing time”. It then is ironic that I Told Them… can only offer a great time, an amazing time, even, but at its core, Burna’s mix of empty self-aggrandization and conceited self-victimization does not make for a very cohesive album substance.