Burna Boy’s ‘I Told Them’ review – Afrobeats superstar punches closer to the mainstream

You could view the title of I Told Them as defiant: Burna Boy’s seventh album arrives preceded by controversy after its author told a journalist about his desire for Black Americans to return to Africa.

It is a regular topic with the 32-year-old Nigerian, who is very big on pan-Africanism: he has claimed his ultimate career goal is “the eventual unity of Africa”.

This time, however, he unwisely suggested that the reason Chinese and Italian immigrants in the US have “respect” and “don’t go through the things that African Americans go through” was because African Americans lacked knowledge of their own roots.

You can understand the storm that followed: as more than one outraged commenter pointed out, he seemed to have overlooked the fact that Chinese and Italian Americans came to the US of their own volition, rather than on slave ships.

In fairness, Burna Boy is no stranger to controversy: in 2020, an interview with the Guardian went unexpectedly off-piste when he announced his admiration for Colonel Gaddafi. Nevertheless, the timing of the latest uproar was unfortunate: he seems to be on the verge of becoming a huge mainstream star in the US, transforming a handful of gold-selling singles into something bigger still. He recently became the first African artist to headline a US stadium concert, drawing 41,000 people to New York’s Citi Field (shortly before, he had become the first African solo artist to headline a stadium show in the UK, packing out the London Stadium).

Burna Boy has been smartly building his reach among western audiences for some time – cropping up on singles by Sam Smith and Justin Bieber, collaborating on his own albums not just with British and US rappers but Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Ed Sheeran, the latter of whom applied his patent first-dance-at-a-wedding balladry to For My Hand, a single from 2022’s Love, Damini. There is nothing as obviously designed to attract broader attention on I Told Them, an album on which the guest list sticks fast to fellow Nigerians – singer Seyi Vibez turns up on Giza – and rappers, among them J Cole and also 21 Savage, who graces Sittin’ on Top of the World with his impressively unique brand of chat-up line: “I can help you shit on anybody you ever hated.” Nevertheless, it still very much sets out to capitalise on Burna Boy’s burgeoning US success. Twenty minutes and seven songs shorter than its predecessor, it trims away any extraneous fat: there is no equivalent of Love, Damini’s How Bad Could It Be, a bit of padding that featured Burna Boy’s celebrity mates – Jorja Smith and Naomi Campbell among them – offering tips on how to deal with a bad mood. Its production hones Burna Boy’s sprawling influences into music that feels punchy, inimitable and impressively streamlined: from Fela Kuti to UK rap, the latter finding expression not merely in a sparkling feature from Dave on Cheat on Me, but the Wiley lyrics and UK drill slang that Burna interpolates into Big Seven.

Anyone intrigued by his political militancy in interviews is likely to leave disappointed: the main way his desire to unite Africa and its diaspora is expressed on I Told Them is via undying fandom for Burna Boy: you certainly hear a lot more about his manifold wonderfulness, success and skills in the bedroom than, say, the benefits of introducing a pan-African monetary fund to rival the IMF. But if you judge an album by its quantity of hooks or its prevalence of bulletproof songwriting, you are in luck: I Told Them is exceptionally rich in both. Curiously, its most obvious influence seems to be not the stars of 21st-century hip-hop, but the Wu-Tang Clan: GZA and the RZA perform brief spoken-word pieces, while the album is liberally sprinkled with the sound of punches being thrown and flying kicks hitting their target, ripped from old kung fu films, a Wu trademark.

Kung fu samples notwithstanding, there is none of the Wu’s grimy darkness about the album’s sound, which is as sunlit as a warm July morning.

It layers subtle washes of synthesiser, sparkling guitar lines – the acoustic guitar figure on ballad If I’m Lying carries a pleasing echo of TLC’s No Scrubs – and smooth 80s pop signifiers including a languid sax solo on Tested, Approved and Trusted over snapping Afrobeats rhythms.

There is also a selection of fantastic basslines: the moment during On Form when the bass shifts from leisurely to urgent, transforming the track as it does, is among the album’s low-key highlights.

It has a great sideline in perfectly deployed vocal samples – a stammering reappropriation of a vocal by Brandy on Sittin’ on Top of the World, an expertly twisted nod to Kwabs on Cheating on Me.

The choruses are usually underlined by massed backing vocals, but, in truth, they don’t really need underlining: the melodies alone are strong enough to drill deep into your memory.

You suspect they are still going to be lodged there long after any online controversy dies down, and that the headlining stadium gigs are unlikely to be Burna Boy’s last.

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