Twenty-two years after Fela‘s death, his accomplished older son, Femi Kuti, is 58 years old, the exact age Fela was when he succumbed to HIV/AIDS.
Seun Kuti, his younger son, in whose hands the mantle of leading the Egypt 80 band fell at the age 14 has released his fourth album, Black Times, which was nominated for a Grammy award in that problematic World Music category.
Burna Boy, his ‘honorary grandson’ (grandson to Benson Idonije) has released his fourth album which he boldly calls African Giant.
The politics of this rather grandiose title requires context. Burna Boy and his contemporary, Mr Eazi, performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival , earlier this year—the first two Nigerian musicians to achieve this memorable feat. Only a few weeks ago, Burna Boy appeared on Beyonce’s The Gift album (a companion soundtrack compilation for The Lion King animation film) as the only other standalone act besides Beyonce on the song ‘Ja ara e’.
If this doesn’t speak for the impending victory of Burna Boy in the race of the fastest tune to quicken an American market, what will?
The Afrobeats invasion of the United Kingdom is no longer in question; check streaming numbers and packed concert venues like the 02. In truth, Nigerian pop music has already made peace with its British conquest since D’Banj relocated his sound from Nigeria back to the U.K (mind on America) when he released his infectious ditty and, swansong in retrospect, called ‘Oliver Twist’.
Nigerian musicians, tenacious and brazen, have continued to lay their ambitions ahead of the sophistication of their sound. Davido made short-term goals to stir himself into the American market with an amiable narrative and a clutch of old hits. Wizkid attempted a breakthrough with his third album called Sounds from the Other Side. American listeners may have thought he was bringing them exotic musical fruits from wild Africa, when indeed he was only truthful about the Caribbean sound which he had borrowed perhaps in hope of a soft landing occasioned by courting what the American market was already acquainted to–Soca.
While it may be too early to say Burna Boy succeeded where both Wizkid and Davido failed, one cannot fault his sense of timing. Dropping an album to ride the current wave of the Western gaze is not as fortuitous as the fascinating error of doubles that brought attention to his single, Ye.
Burna Boy, ever the hard-worker, was the single most impressive act of 2019, belting out hit after hit after hit. African Giant is coming at a crucial time to consolidate his gains. Packed full of songs, this album is one song shy of twenty tracks. If you ask me, nineteen tracks is a bit of stretch for an incursion at this time of short attention spans, but Burna Boy knows he is special like he sings on ‘Anybody’.
While anxiety about the relevance of the LP album keeps ratcheting high it is clear with the example of ‘Killing Dem’ that Zlatan has become a middling accomplice rather than a major player in the final scheme of things.
A Nigerian listener will marvel at how old songs are stitched to new with effortless ease. Burna Boy’s goal is to make a medley that sustains dance seamlessly.
His methods have hardly changed. His influences have hardly strayed out of his comfort zone: Sizzla Kalonji on one end of his radar; Fela Anikulapo-Kuti on the other.
Earlier career decisions ensured that he switched between both styles with scatter-brain exuberance.
His masterful debut LP, L.I.F.E, is a quintessential example of this tendency. While his sophomore was burdened with the anxieties of staying within the ambit of popular music, Outside, his third effort, throttled with the promise of re-orientation gained from his EP aptly titled Redemption.
African Giant presents Burna Boy at the height of his powers. Self-assured in his ability to own that Fela groove (shorn of the political streak save for the M.anifest assisted ‘Another Story’), this album leans into Fela’s practice and lyrical phrasing of Afrobeat with an exuberance of a young Fela leading either his Highlife Rakers or Koola Lobitos band.
Like Fela, Burna Boy is sublime when he teases or courts objects of sexual interest on songs like ‘Pull Up’, ‘Secret’, ‘Omo’ and ‘Gum Body’ in descending order . He is totally affecting when he sings to the plight and optimism of the common man in ‘Wetin Man Go Do’. On ‘Destiny’ he acknowledges his own greatness as well as his paranoia. He features Angelique Kidjo and Damian Junior Gong Marley on ‘Different’, a dancehall-based song that casts Kidjo in a new light, but too many acts nearly killed this broth.
To chalk down Fela as Burna Boy’s only creative inspiration on this album will be to do a disservice to the creative alchemy of his fusion. Creating music mostly tempered for dance, if Burna Boy nods twice at Afrobeat, he also tips his hat at Reggae and Dancehall, before winking at Rhythm n Blues , high-fiving American Hip-Hop and chopping knuckles with Grime.
The charm is that his sound has stayed distinctively unique and unmistakable. He has stayed in his corner for years working tirelessly. Now that corner has become the centre—and Fela, his patron god, will be exceedingly proud.