Described as an artist running out of second chances, Burna Boy was his own biggest problem going into 2018.
The self-destructive auteur had managed every step on the path to fulfilling his doubtless talent–the debut single, mixtape and album trio, nationwide hits, the international record deal even.
But every two steps forward had come with a display of the moonwalk–alarmingly deliberate moves, beautiful even, but with only one victim; Burna himself.
Damini Ogulu has always tethered on that line–the one habited by the gang members of hip-hop, Afropop’s internet fraudsters–where socially prominent individuals are often linked with criminal behaviour.
His stint in Port Harcourt’s underground scene came after he reportedly violated his parole by leaving the UK, following a rumoured 10-month jail term in that country.
However true those rumours are, his role in the kidnap and assault of fellow Port Harcourt artiste, 2kay served a reminder of who he could be.
After a year of dominating social conversations with the keyword “underrated”, amidst claims that he was in the studio with everyone from Madonna to Drake, something had to give.
You could be mistaken for expecting that Burna would adopt a more friendly, easily digestible image.
Burna has always insisted there is no method to his madness.
So it was somewhat surprising that the same artiste who in a 2017 interview, likened describing the spirit that leads him to “explain(ing) what the air is like” decided instead to let us into his puzzling world, as best he could.
It would give him the best year of his career, and maybe his life, yet.
On the 26th of January, while the year slithered to a deceptively slow start, Burna Boy released his third studio album, “Outside”.
The album immediately stood out for its ambitious genre-bending.
It was described by Pitchfork’s Claire Lobenfeld as “a fine lesson in mixing genres without making mud”–high praise coming from an American pop/rock magazine.
From tracks like “Giddem” to “Devil in California”, Outside made a cohesive case for Burna’s palate and in doing so, gave us some of his best music yet.
But an often overlooked side of that album is that Burna, known for cryptic remarks that hardly seem to make any sense in the moment, left himself–bare and unbridled–on wax
Like one of those hardbacks with one-word titles that Mother warned you against reading in your teens.
One of the album openers, PH City Vibration is an autobiographical ride through the city of his birth, Port Harcourt.
“And I was born inna the teaching hospital/The 2nd of July of 1991/I no dey stay too far from Liberation stadium”, he sings, before dropping a nod to “Rumuigbo where the high grade burn”, the busy neighbourhood with its night market where he is believed to have grown up.
Pop stars are often seen as products first, then multifaceted individuals second.
It is an approach that does Burna no justice. On the surface, he seems like a mindless brat.
Yet on “Outside”, he sings “Before me mama cry and her eyes start swell, cause her son end up like Vybz Kartel”, a reference to the Jamaican superstar whose ties to the street life nabbed him a life sentence in 2014.
It’s somewhat poignant that Burna chose the title “Outside” for his album and the tag “Outsiders” for his fans because, in a sense, he has always been one.
He may believe himself to be the chosen one, but his biggest contemporaries–Wizkid and Davido–have been blessed with fans who identify with them.
Wizkid is the underdog who climbed to the stars – an ultimate point of reference for the Nigerian dream.
Davido has been the direct opposite–born into wealth, yet determined to earn his name.
Burna sits in the middle. He is not poor by Nigerian standards–one doesn’t move to the UK and live there for years on sheer goodwill.
Neither is he an aspirational figure.
When we think about Burna, we don’t think about status and that has been, in some ways, a problem.
We often deny how invested we are in our favourite artists–from the forlorn writer to the sultry singer.
We project our ambitions unto those we can most relate to in the hopes that they can make their dreams, and ours, come true.
Up until now, Burna never left any room for that.
What he has always offered is a complex, brazen personality.
His attempts to let us in this year changed everything.
From leaving more crumbs of his gang affiliation scattered on loosies like “Agbada”. to making more mentions of his late friend, Gambo.
From explaining how he was shaped by a city ‘where nobody believes in us so we believe in ourselves’ to admitting, finally, his fear of not realising his own potential.
All these, one at a time, allowed us to make that emotional leap of faith nf give the man his due.
Away from the distractions of tabloid headlines and more markedly, his own tendencies, Burna gave us a run for the ages and his first controversy-free year.
International collaborations lined up in the right places.
The hits were never in short supply–he sat in the top 5% of Apple Music’s Top 100 tracks from its launch until the last day of the year.
More singles also came as the year wound down – “All My Life”, “Gbona” and “On The Low”.
Sold-out shows peaked with his ascension at the O2 Brixton and culminated with his first solo show since 2013, “Burna Live”.
On his most anticipated public appearance this year, Burna showed up over four hours late to his stage.
There is a graveyard of tweets in protest at his lateness, but when the man climbed on stage, his people claimed him, in loud screams, in shouts of “Burna”, “Rankin” and all the other nicknames he has come to be known by.
His time had come. The enfant terrible had become the golden child.
How else does one say this?–Burna won everything this year.
Detty Disembaa showed that no song from 2018 is nearly as anthemic as “Ye”.
There’s more. The relevance of collaborations like “African Star” with Sauti Sol, “Sunshine Riptide” with Fall Out Boy and “All My Life” with Major Lazer should not be understated.
His ascension to cultural icon status on two different continents, in the same year, is unmatched by his contemporaries in 2018.
There is no way to know if this time in the sun can be sustained.
There may be no method to Burna’s madness.
The man himself has said he doesn’t plan anything because plans end up never coming true. I’m inclined to agree.
But if he is the pre-ordained one, if he was truly Burna before he was born, then 2018 may end up being a mere footnote in his rise.
One thing is clear.
In a space saturated by many versions of the same skinny-jeans-clad, hit-seeking singers, with the same dreadlocks, as if to suggest they came off a production line, there is only one Burna.