Burna Boy’s ‘I Told Them…’ Finds Afrobeats Taking A Backseat In His Vision

todaySeptember 5, 2023

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Burna Boy wants to bring afrobeats to the world. Well, afro-fusion that is at least, as he emphatically claims as not only his genre, but one he also created. Afro-fusion blends elements of afrobeat (different from afrobeats), hip-hop, R&B, dancehall, reggae, and more – elements that are at the foundation of what many know as the afrobeats genre as a whole. In Burna’s mind, this mixture is supposed to be universally palatable as it brings African elements in and outside of the music to the masses. Afro-fusion has been present to varying degrees among Burna’s past projects, but following the release of his beloved African Giant project in 2019, Burna sought to make afro-fusion appear grander and more encompassing altogether.

That brings us to his seventh album I Told Them…. Released 14 months after his sixth LP Love, Damini, Burna Boy pushes his “afro-fusion to the world” agenda more than ever. The album’s lead single, “Sittin’ On Top The World” with 21 Savage, aims to re-emulate the success of “Last Last” as it samples and interpolates Brandy and Mase’s “Top Of The World” to boast about his star status. In the end, what comes out of it is a record that sounds like a product of ‘90s hip-hop more than anything in the afrobeats world. The next single, “Big 7,” though without a sample, is made in a similar vein while erring for a lighter pop feel. In both cases, the “afro” part of the songs exist through Burna Boy’s lyrics as his mannerisms remain while also flashing a line or two in pidgin.

Other examples appear throughout I Told Them… “City Boys” supplies a sample from Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex” classic, “If I’m Lying” shoots for a stripped-down R&B record, and rap legends RZA and GZA contribute interludes on the album. Altogether, Burna’s display of afro-fusion seems to be more equally distributed across the incorporated genres, rather than afrobeats having more of a dominating presence as exhibited on past projects. One could even argue that afrobeats has taken a backseat role through the album’s 15 songs. Even though records like “Normal,” “Giza” with Seyi Vibez, “On Form,” and “Dey Play” more into the afrobeats world, it does nothing more than to balance the scale that holds the more universal records on the other side. Though the approach altogether does make for a palatable body of work to push out into the world, it also leaves his longtime fans to grapple with the reality of their star moving further and further away from his home base — sonically that is — over the years.

That all goes to say that I Told Them… is a solid body of work at the end of the day. Though it pales in comparison to his earlier albums like Outside and African Giant, it still makes for a fun and spirited listen that supplies worthy contributions to your summer playlist in the season’s final weeks. I’ll even go further to say that from a strictly musical point of view, it appears that his “afro-fusion to the world” goals were somewhat successful. The project became the first African album in history to debut at No. 1 on the UK album charts while the album is set to be his second top-40 release on the US album charts in his career. Yet, all of that gets pushed to the side as Burna spent the week leading up to the album’s release criticizing the afrobeats genre in a simultaneous attempt to elevate his status and position in the genre through conversations in American media.

For anyone who follows afrobeats and has love for it, watching Burna Boy tell Zane Lowe that afrobeats lacks substance is incredibly frustrating. Watching Burna Boy tell Wallo & Gillie that he doesn’t know what “afrobeats” is can only make one laugh at the sudden cluelessness. Burna Boy’s claims in multiple interviews that he created afro-fusion are very debatable, and at best you can say it was not a solo effort as Davido and Wizkid – names who achieved African success before him – as well as others also contributed to the afro-fusion genre as it currently stands. Though Burna preaches unity and dreams of a bridge between Africa and the world, it’s as if the bridge must lead to him, or go through him at the very least, for it to be validated in his eyes. Furthermore, the unity that’s spoken of seems to be constructed backward as Burna stands with outsiders and calls on those from home to follow his philosophy and cross the bridge to join him. When instead, Burna could invite outsiders to his home and build that bridge in collaboration with his peers in order to create an honest narrative that will most likely be beneficial to himself, and most importantly, the genre that allowed him to be the superstar he is today.

I Told Them… is supposed to sound like a triumphant celebration of victory over critics and detractors, all of whom have been proven wrong about Burna Boy’s career trajectory. Instead, we received an album that sits in the center of Burna’s latest era where he pushes narratives that are more false than true and damaging to the afrobeats genre which is highlighted by contributors who worked tirelessly to elevate it to the worldwide success that it has now. Look no further than “Thanks” which is upended by his frustration at the collective world’s refusal to blindly hail as the most supreme king. Altogether, it’s a contradiction that ultimately affects the album’s experience. Yes, the music can be enjoyed, but with the message behind it that Burna Boy has been preaching, it also can be frustrating. Burna Boy’s I Told Them… is a bold proclamation that ultimately depends on the listener’s experience, and time will tell if the gamble pays off.

I Told Them… is out now via Spaceship Records & Atlantic Records. Find out more information here.

Burna Boy is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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