Burna Boy is so obsessed with critics he has now started both his studio albums with them. The intro to his new album On A Spaceship is a laundry list of his problems in the industry—as narrated by a Nigerian critic. As it is quite common to take critics for haters, you wish he took his own advice as offered on his first album, the excellent L.I.F.E (Leaving an Impact for Eternity), where he sang, "Migrate o, gyrate o. No send the people when dey hate o."
That album, which in time would be recognised as a contemporary pop classic, began with the voice of jazz writer and critic Benson Idonije, who is Burna Boy's granddad. Idonije tries to endorse his grandson's ambitions but you can tell the man's heart isn't fully into it.
You can tell he is torn between duty and taste. So he focuses on the one thing that connects his grandson and his grander taste: the sound. “His music is unique…even though it’s in the hip-hop region,” said Idonije as the song plays in the background. “But you see the good thing about his music is that it has leanings with jazz and other roots…”
The attack on hip-hop aside, Idonije is right. L.I.F.E's true value was its unusual sound. That sound is all but jettisoned on Spaceship. From the immediate high of Spaceship’s first song ‘Oluwa Burna’ and the afro-poppy goodness of ‘The Realest’, the album descends into a blur of average tunes. The disappointment is traceable to the absence of Leriq, producer of L.I.F.E. The partnership spawned a fresh sound on radio that weirdly was also a throwback. It launched Burna’s career but for all of its excellence, the album and hit single 'Like to Party' came up short at major award ceremonies.
Many pop stars would cash their cheques and shrug off the lack of awards but Burna grew up too close to criticism to not care. Maybe it’s in his genes. He cares deeply and must view his inability to win an award as an extension of criticism. On social media and in at least one interview, he has complained publicly about being shunned at major awards. Perhaps award juries are unsure the category to put an artist as singular and with an eclectic palette as Burna.
At the recent Headies the Nigerian public was treated to how artists—even ones like Olamide who one think shouldn’t care about institutions and awards, given his loyalty to the streets—react to not receiving their due. How much more Burna given his proximity to Idonije, perhaps the country's most respected music writer, and who was also manager to afrobeat maestro Fela?
Paradoxically, the response to the critic's statements on Spaceship produces the album's best song the aforementioned ‘Oluwa Burna’. The song's immediacy, its threatening note urges attention and rewards it. Coming in as first song means the whole album peaks too early. The singles tossed off in the interval of first and second album, including ‘Don Gorgon’ and ‘Rockstar’, find no space here even when they could have helped. The remarkable single ‘Soke’ is however a bonus track.
The Wizkid feature ‘Single Girl’ fails to live up to the abilities of both singers, although the electro-beat is catchy. The force of ‘Duro Ni Be’ with Phyno, which shares semblance to Davido’s ‘Fans Mi’, deserves its spot on any car’s playlist. He drawls a shot at his perceived enemies: “I no get time to go award show. How me go go sit down start convo with dis hating industry?” He may not realise it but it is the second time on the album where responding to his obsession with critics produces a highlight.
The whole enterprise puts Burna's anger into perspective. That craving for respect is connected to the young Burna's closeness to criticism. He understands its usefulness. Unfortunately, that understanding has opposing effects: He produces fine music in response; without that pressure the rest of his music dangles not too far from disposability.
Burna had always had a closeness to his pop peers in the sexual content of his songs. In fact, one of the song with a future in clubs ‘On a Very Good Day’ with Wande Coal is on the subject. Yet somehow Burna Boy looked apart from them in barely mentioning how rich he is or has gotten. He supplanted that impulse with consciousness. A foreign-schooled citizen, he identified with the underclass by channelling 1990s Naija pop rhythms on L.I.F.E , a sound produced mainly by young men from mostly deprived suburbs.
How much of the failure of Spaceship is due to Burna's chagrin at how he has been treated by the industry? Who knows? But here's a man who only wants to be an artist and not a big man and they won't let him. L.I.F.E should have won major awards. That it didn't is an indictment on Nigeria's award shows. If they failed to recognise a great album, Burna is saying, he will provide them with an average one so the snubbing can be reasonable. This theory, of course, implies that Burna Boy has cut his nose to spite the face.
In the end, the unevenness of Burna Boy's sophomore may be due to the absence of the Burna Boy-Leriq partnership, but it is also a kind of vengeful poetry directed at the industry. If the industry won’t recognise greatness, On A Spaceship is what it deserves.