Review: Burna Boy’s Vulnerability Forms the Core of ‘Love, Damini’
Burna Boy’s music is an experience. At the center of that experience is his very Nigerian identity and a longstanding love for its varied indigenous music and popular cultures. You’ll hear that musical influence in his adapting of genres like afrobeat, fuji and highlife. Culture-wise, his songs are spiced with social references and inventive aphorisms.
But his music also turns outwards often. Like any Nigerian born in the nineties, the golden age of hip-hop—and its peculiar R&B influence—was very much the soundtrack of his progressive years. Turn to the island, and you’ll find an angst-bearing, poetic child of Jamaica’s Bob Marley and Sizzla. These many elements construct afro-fusion, which is what Damini Ogulu ascribes as his genre.
Earlier this year, Burna Boy put a crown to his global tour by performing at the 20-thousand capacity Madison Square Garden, becoming the first Nigerian artist to ever do so as he delivered a two-hour plus concert of the highest level. The night peaked as he announced Love, Damini and premiered “Last Last” shortly after. This is the artist’s sixth album, continuing his tendency to splash details of his personal trajectory onto the canvas of his generational artistry.
Love, Damini was billed to arrive on the artist’s birthday—the second of July—but came six days after, possibly due to his involvement in an ongoing investigation in a club shooting which happened in Lagos. Last Friday, the 19-track project was released. Helmed by an exciting array of features, it sees Burna doing what he’s done best: bringing the world into the fragmented world of African music, while reaching for other sounds circulating global pop.
The album is attended by the sort of introspection he’s mastered. Album opener “Glory” is an atmospheric masterpiece, built on almost muted percussion, triumphant strings, and the warm vocal riffs of the legendary South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The song advances “Level Up,” the opening track of Twice As Tall. There he bemoaned losing the Grammy Award for African Giant, utilizing a Youssou N’Dour feature to chilling effect.
On “Glory” he’s appreciative of his journey, especially with his Grammy win in the backdrop. His cadences go from trap-leaning to soulful, impressively tender when he really flexes his voice. Similar vulnerable moments are found in the Khalid-featuring “Wild Dreams” and “Love, Damini.”
The latter also features the Ladysmith group, but their role is considerably minimal. Burna bleeds his human imperfections on wax, starting off with how he doesn’t write his lyrics but spit them off the dome. “I should show more people love while they still alive/ I should always know the way my people feel inside,” he sings after referencing the 2021 death of Sound Sultan, a veteran musician who he collaborated with in the early stages of his career. The desire to be a better person is reiterated, even in the interlude rendered by the featured group, sung in isiZulu.
The vision of “Wild Dreams” is paired with “Common Person”-soft and inspirational, they embody the album’s overarching theme of gratefulness regardless of one’s less-than-satisfactory background. “Common Person” is primed to become a Nigerian favorite, ostensibly because of its local flavor and relatable subject of our shared humanity regardless of social status. “I be common person, but my happiness still be my own,” he sings with charming simplicity. “How Bad Could It Be” falls into this sub-category, turning romantic palaver into a treatise on self-happiness.
The majority of Love, Damini indeed gets into the complex turf of love and lust. He can go from ultra-masculine lover (“Science”) to haplessly apologetic (“Jagele”) and back to sensual narratives (“Dirty Secrets” “Different Size”). “For My Hand” and “Toni-Ann Singh” tenderly hold the branch of love’s olive, featuring exquisite performances from Ed Sheeran and Popcaan respectively. The Jamaican superstar’s tough persona is delicately shed in a song titled after his country person, the former Miss World, and longest reigning champion in the contest’s history.
J Hus is present on “Cloak & Dagger,” wielding his pen as mightily as ever. “When your time has come, n**ga don’t make it harder,” he raps in the closing parts of his verse, coming full circle to his signature wisdom after rattling the shenanigans of foes earlier on. On “Solid,” Blxst rivals Victony for the most influential feature, after producing the song and laying a spritzy verse as well. Kehlani and J Balvin also come in for brief but notable showings.
“Whiskey” sees Burna going the path all alone. Well, he’s backed by a voiceover wherein a woman decries the environmental pollution that’s rife in Port Harcourt, the artist’s native city. Across three verses he references the state of his state, the conceit of Nigerian religiosity, social problems–particularly flooding, which leads him to an important contrast in perspective on the last verse. “I fall too easy, and I poured the whiskey/ But no be disability o,” he sings in the chorus, underlining his tendency, as on “Last Last,” to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Love, Damini is a very personal album. Through its 19 songs, he charts a story of victory, love, loss, pain and strength. On their own, the songs are quite good, but at rare moments he doesn’t stretch the lyrical vision as you’d quite expect. The production output of Telz deserves peculiar credit. His mastery pours into the eccentric, sinister vibe of “Cloak & Dagger” while lining waist-turning guitars borrowed from Highlife on “Common Person.” Elsewhere, the production is highly competent but often safe. The output of Jae5 and ATG respectively on “It’s Plenty” and “Vanilla” offer something different, with Burna’s infectious energy roaring against the components of the beats.
In all, Love, Damini’is a thoroughly enjoyable album. For those who have met Burna Boy on the road from last year to this one, it’s a fine introduction to his range. Some earlier listeners would likely have their preference for a certain vibe on other songs from his catalog. Burna Boy’s unique ability to constantly transform himself has always been his selling point and truly, Love, Damini’ plays out like the start of something transcendental for the musician. It’s only forward from here.