Embedded within Burna Boy is a flagrant character matrix with an unending penchant for causing controversy, and a constant fixation for an excited press that’s always eager to cast the artist in his controversial light. The ever prominent dramas probably wouldn’t cause much noise or be of much consequence if Burna wasn’t a generational talent. The running gist on social media by his ever loyal fan base always borders on the molehill-like ratio of attention Burna currently receives (compared to the domineering duo of Wizkid & Davido), with respect to the mountain of talent he wields. Don’t believe the hype? Watch his phenomenal freestyle on Tim Westwood.
Far from teetering at the edge of obscurity and being one of the most bankable artists in a cutthroat industry, the frustrations of his agitated fan base could be deemed unnecessary. But Burna’s versatility makes a case for why they continually champion their fave. Every musical release by Burna is tinged with his uniqueness – for better or worse (it tilts towards the former more), only bolstering the strength of the mythos.
With the amount of negative stories sharing attention with his music, the obvious solution that anyone would proffer is that Burna’s flawed and obviously crisis-riddled existential state needs to stay out of Burna’s artistic ascension to the top. It’s easy advice to blurt out but really hard in practice, because separating art from real life is not some chemical procedure – for both fans and artists alike, both sides always blur. Burna not being able to rein in the excesses of his flawed character could be termed a cliché in terms of talking about exceptionally talented artists (Kanye, Fela, Chris Brown etc.). The gift of creative genius forever in parallel with the curse of always making a mess.
Accepting and owning the Gemini-esque trait inside him is what makes Burna’s latest mixtape album Outside, more riveting than his previous projects. Outside is significantly more personal and self-aware than anything Burna’s put out, without being the least bit apologetic. An excellent ploy that retains the artist’s mystic while drawing listeners a little closer to his head space.
A lot of the controversy he’s gotten himself into over the years could have been avoided, but a simple conclusion from listening to the moments of introspection on Outside is; Burna’s troublesome tendencies is a product of his troubled nature. Again, it could be termed cliché but it applies.
These inward looking moments are vivid without being overly emotive. They could come across as explanatory but they really are musings of an artist about himself to himself, we’re just observers whose opinions are the least of his concerns. The title track which also doubles as the final track is Burna looking deeply into his own eyes through a mirror, an exposing track on which he proclaims that “only God knows the pain I feel.” It plays into the tortured artist ethos, and a line like “if I feel it any deeper, I might drown” would be more jarring than it is if it wasn’t couched by Mabel’s soaring voice on a beautifully sung chorus and an electro-pop beat built for stadium sized arenas.
Subversion and temporarily pushing out his demons is the order on the Jae5-produced “Calm Down,” starting off with Burna in contemplative mood over layered vocal chants, “if I should stumble off my feet, I hope no one sees” is his blues. But the dourness doesn’t last for long, there’s a switch in modulation about a minute into the track, with the addition of steady bass to crank things up a notch – his pain is stuffed into styrofoam cups, lean drinking and popping mollys becomes the order. The same idea courses through the Baba Stiltz-produced opener “More Life,” on which the simple pleasures – in this case, weed and juice are used as the foil to feeling sad and blue.
The idea of self-medicating through emotional pains might be regarded as a mess, but Burna is less concerned about solutions on Outside, he might be looking inward at times, but he’s in the open for a good time. And it helps that the music he creates with the support of a mini-village of producers is some of his best work yet. The amount of contributors behind the board results in a diverse and adventurous soundscape that works for the album.
Using his versatility effectively, the album is held together by Burna, switching gears throughout the album to keep things intriguing. He freewheels over Leriq’s unlikely trap banger on the ghetto ode “Streets Of Africa,” which uses a piano recital riff as its element of fun. His grungy patois delivery on “PH City Vibration” keeps up with the energy of an equally upbeat, punchy beat, on which Burna travels down memory lane with a barrage of pinpoint details. The switch between scribbly baritone and soft patois forms a sensual tandem with Juls’ crawly beat on dry hump anthem “Rock Your Body.”
Clocking in at about 40mins to keeps things relatively brisk, Outside is filled with experimentation that works and a solid display of his wide reaching ability as an artist.
In clarifying his gripe with being labeled as a dancehall artist, a statement from his feature on NativeMag’s Rebirth issue sticks out:
I’m not a rapper, or a singer, I’m not even an Afrobeats singer, I’m an Afro-Fusionist, it’s a spiritual genre of music, it just comes. You get chosen and it just works out for you.
Where his previous album On A Spaceship sprawled around and was rife experimental moments that mostly folded in on themselves, Outside is a functional specimen to Burna’s “Afrofusion”; a partly-serendipitous genre where anything goes as per the fusion part, with inbuilt shades of African heritage for authenticity.
Considering that Outside is Burna Boy’s first release under Atlantic Records, there are songs with crossover appeal (“Devil In California” is a dazzling, quirky contemporary R&B song), but most of the sounds are either from this side or are an organic expansion of Burna’s innate afro-Caribbean sensibilities.
Also of note are the stellar performances by international collaborators on Outside, with Lilly Allen’s feature being the pick of the litter. Fred Gibson’s boisterous beat, which kicks with the fervor of an excited fetus in a mother’s womb, sets a grabbing tone for “Heaven’s Gate.” There are specific threats to send snakes, fakes and lames to go and meet their Makers early. Burna Boy is on his aggressive, confrontational tip and Lily tries cooing her way under the skin of their collective targets. And while the collaboration sounds menacing, you appreciate hearing Burna keeping his threats on wax only.
Nonetheless, it’s a strangely alluring chemistry that only sounds better with more listens. “Heaven’s Gate” was constructed to appeal to Burna’s secondary market and his second home – the UK, but even that doesn’t come off as being contrived. The record is a standout moment out of many, on Burna’s most accomplished body of work yet.