Review: With “Love, Damini”, Burna Boy Has Made His Second Mid/Mediocre Album

Reliably, the conscious song on Love, Damini shows up early. It’s at track 6, not quite midway of this 19-tracker. The focus is on the pollution of Port Harcourt, the city that raised the man. Unlike a song like “Soke”, this doesn’t feel like Burna Boy puts a lot on it. When the subject is heartbreak, as it is on the song “Last Last”, there is a clear passion you can hear. Perhaps as success and its trappings come, the distance between the man and his town’s circumstances get farther. This is a point I have made before.

Nonetheless, by the album’s midpoint, “It’s Plenty”, no song has really stretched out to grab the listener as “Last Last” did upon its release. If the album ends on that track, the best one would say is Burna has picked excellent singles from a mediocre collection of songs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if only because the chant from “It’s Plenty” may strike gold among a certain type of young man.

The second half is more of the same mid tunes. Even with the diverse line-up of Kehlani and J Balvin and Ed Sheeran. The best song is the one with Khalid, “Wild Dreams”. That one should get a video, even as it has no real hope of becoming a major hit. These songs are not bad songs. They just don’t seem to have the incandescence of his hit singles or the cool excellence of, say, the best non-single cuts from both African Giant and the Redemption EP, or even as far back as his first album, LIFE.

Is this a new direction? Perhaps.

But the songs themselves find the man walking paths and themes he has blazed past before. “Dirty Secrets” and “Solid” contain lyrical elements from “Secret” from African Giant. The drum pattern on “Rollercoaster” can be heard on any reggae or reggaeton song released anytime in the past decade, and although the song will work well in streaming terms because it has the streaming king, J Balvin, on it, it is not a very compelling track. The title of the song immediately after itencapsulates the feeling of many songs here: Vanilla.

This many albums into his career, the different flavours Burna Boy is capable of seem to have coalesced into one sonic monolith. It’s not bad per se but it’s also neither new nor super-engaging. Naturally, one wants to ask what could have been different?

Who knows? I suppose there should be a place for the man to address some of his misbehaviour in real life on the album. That would have given Love, Damini something new and something with depth. The silence in real life has done no favours to his public standing and it has deprived his new album of immediacy and relevance. Having tackled topical subjects before, the man seems to have run out of enemies, but his real enemy is the man in his mirror. Why is he off-limits on most of this album?

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At some point, he gets into some motivational speak, which is awkward coming from a violent person who attended Corona as a kid: “Remember Martin Luther King had a dream and then he got shot.” Bros, we know and it is not your place to tell us.

But, of course, Burna’s his oyinbo fans probably have no idea that this is the wrong messenger because the last time we heard there was a gunshot around Mister Damini, Burna Boy and his people were on the shooting side. Love, Damini? More like, Violence and Impunity, Damini.

Invoking MLK and singing a song like “Common People” tells us that even as Love, Damini is Burna Boy’s second most mediocre album (the first is On A Spaceship, which I reviewed here), it still has a shiny layer of hypocrisy over it. The gender wokeness of the title “Common People” tells you two things:

  1. Burna Boy is again gunning for the international acclaim of his last two albums.
  2. Burna Boy knows the global acclaim game better than his peers.

But Nigerians know that this guy doesn’t behave like he understands the common man or woman. And why should he? He may not have the billionaire father of his rival Davido but the man also emerged swaddled in privilege and struts around with its accoutrements and those gotten from his fame and wealth. This is not information that one imagines the Grammys have. And there is clearly a Grammy play here as Burna has included South African near-perennial Grammy winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo over two tracks, the opening song, Glory, and the eponymous closing track.

Both songs (really one song split in two as he has done several times) join his other Grammy-induced collaborations with acts like Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, and Damian Marley. Will he get another nomination? That would depend on the media rounds he embarks on. But based on quality, this shouldn’t get the award, if only because fans who do not understand the politics of Grammys might consider this album as equal or greater than Twice As Tall and African Giant. It is not.

By the time some self-reflection comes into play, it’s too little too late. “I got it all but I still got my anger,” he says on the album’s last track, but a man who has once said that he tells his “truth in melodies” that truth comes with little melody. Nobody will be playing that track after the first few listens. It’s a familiar trick, though. Falz deployed a few years ago in his Moral Instruction album — but in that case and in this case, the introspection of the modern Nigerian artist comes across as an afterthought.

Love, Damini is a decent album to stream but it is hard to imagine many people would have gone out to purchase the CD, if it was released in, say, 2012. That’s the gift and curse of the streaming era.

Burna Boy has his own gift and curse. Unfortunately, while his curse of violence continues to grow in real life, his gift doesn’t shine too much on Love, Damini. He should be preparing answers for both. One answer for the police, the other for his fans.

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