Why Burna Boy is the artist of 2018
In the future, we might look back at 2018 as the year Burna Boy came of age, the year he began to truly fulfill his immense potential. Davido and Wizkid continue to occupy the summit of Nigerian pop music, but few have come closer to disrupting their duopoly in one calendar year than Oluwa Burna has.
In truth, there has never been any doubt about how great Burna Boy could be, just about how much he wanted to. Prior to 2018, the singer’s appetite for self-destruction seemed insatiable and it felt as if it was only a matter of when he’d implode, not if.
Burna Boy has a rap sheet from two countries that stretches back to his teens. He got roped into gang culture in the UK, and cultism in Nigeria, and that energy has followed him around the music industry like a dark cloud. So when Burna became a superstar, it was immediately apparent that the whole bad boy thing wasn’t just an image, he was for real.
Even though Burna Boy claims he wouldn’t change a thing about his troubled past, he has also admitted to being worried that his extracurricular activities would land him in the same predicament as the imprisoned dancehall legend, Vybz Kartel. Burna’s handlers were worried too, and they staged multiple interventions. At one point, they encouraged the singer to go see a shrink to help him work through his issues — Burna Boy would only make one visit
The singer’s journey to the dark side seemed to have come without a return ticket. But in the last 12 months, Burna Boy has made a spectacular U-turn and is now almost unrecognisably trouble-free.
The wake-up call might have been his dust-up with Mr. 2Kay last December. Burna was implicated in a robbery that left his fellow PH-bred singer bruised and battered. He was charged to court and forced to cancel two of his headline shows in Lagos and Port Harcourt. The case has since fizzled out but it was an embarrassing new low for the singer. How could a man whom many saw as the incarnation of Fela and Bob Marley rolled into one, jeopardise his freedom over an artist with one-and-a-half hit songs to his name? I remember writing in January this year that Burna Boy was running out of second chances, and he knows it.
Amazingly, Burna Boy hasn’t generated a single negative headline ever since. He is scheduled to round up the super-successful Life On The Outside tour with a hotly-anticipated spot date in Lagos on Boxing Day. The highlight of the tour, so far, was Burna selling out the nearly 5,000-capacity O2 Brixton Academy in London. An achievement made even more significant when you consider that Burna wasn’t even allowed into the UK a couple of years ago because of his criminal past.
It’s no coincidence that Burna Boy’s least turbulent year has also been his most productive. In addition to staying out of trouble, the singer gave himself a significant head start by releasing his third studio album Outside in January, a month that’s historically slow for new releases. In a climate that was just recovering from the hangover of the customary end-of-year rush for a “hit” single, Burna Boy offered a full body of work. And the work was good, so good that you could argue that no Nigerian artist made a better album in the 11 or so months since its release.
Outside also produced arguably the most impactful song of 2018: “Ye”. The song interpolates Fela’s “Sorrow Tears and Blood” and presents the contradiction of being young and ambitious in a country as difficult as Nigeria. “Plenty plenty plenty suffer wey we face / Just to make sure money dey…” Bigger records were produced this year but none that meant as much. There was even a tongue-in-cheek online petition for the song to replace Nigeria’s national anthem.
Burna Boy was also part of other special records in 2018 such as Larry Gaaga’s “Baba Nla” also featuring 2Baba and D’banj, as well as Major Lazer’s “All My Life”. Then, before the year ended, he served up two new singles of his own in “Gbona” and “On the Low”. Both songs have become instant hits in clubs around the country.
Burna Boy’s success this year has been sweetest for the singer’s long-suffering fans. Aided by his early underground mixtapes, Burna has cultivated one of the most devoted fan bases of any Nigerian artist. But he’s also forced them into being one of the most patients.
In addition to the singer’s numerous transgressions, Burna’s fans have had to endure a parting of ways with LeriQ and the Aristokrat family; relationships that were later repaired but only after significant damage to Burna’s sound and artist development. They also watched him go through the dreaded sophomore slump, after the On A Spaceship album flopped, both critically and commercially.
But Burna’s fans kept the faith and in 2018, he truly repaid them. Burna would christen his fans the ‘Outsiders’, after the album that brought him back into the conversation of the most talented artist of his generation. Although, some of them would argue that he never left.