If the intersection of ardent Afrobeat and immensely soulful hip-hop – the chill-out sensuality of Afro-Fusion – needs a patron saint, Burna Boy is the man for canonization. Between the gently flowing machismo of his patois-heavy voice and his ornate Afro-ethnographic melody, he could be an Al Green for Gen Alpha — a man whose musky sensuality, emotionally and local flavor are keys to his commanding presence. And though he’s been around for 10 years, with “African Giant” and “Twice as Tall” getting nominated for best world music album at the Grammys (making him the first Nigerian with back-to-back noms), it is this week’s “Love, Damini” that represents Burna Boy’s most accessible work (anything with an Ed Sheeran duet screams ridiculously approachable) without losing touch with the soul and the struggle of Nigerian heritage.
The 2-billion-streamed single “Last Last” is a nice place to start discussing the heart of Afro-Fusion and “Love, Damini.” Everything about the track, from its introductory chant and the coolly, contagious sample of Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough” to its fluttering guitar line, bathes Burna’s tale of manipulating love and adulthood’s missteps in an odd, alluring amniotic fluid. While you can co-credit producer Chopstix (the man behind Burna Boy’s hit “Outside”) for the buoyant blend of warm liquidity and spaciousness on “Last Last” and “Kilometre,” much of “Love, Damini” is a Burna penned-and-produced effort.
The click-clackety “Science,” with its softly stroked guitars and Studio One-toned brass, the simmering, Sade-like “Whiskey,” the galloping playfulness of “It’s Plenty”: the diversity and flair for the dramatic that producer Burna Boy shows here might not be as staggering as that of a Lee Perry or Legendury Beatz (the team behind fellow Nigerian vocalist Wizkid’s hits), but, when applied to his short, sumptuous melodies, the fit is bespoke and snugly exceptional. That could be one of Burna Boy’s secrets: stay to yourself, keep the magic moving quickly (19 tracks in 60 minutes), and let the tricks remain cloistered behind the curtain.
When he chooses collaboration, as Burna does with Lady Blacksmith Mambazo’s effortlessly gorgeous chorus on “Glory,” and the album’s title track, there is a deep, loving focus on his partner’s voice. That’s not always the case with most features, where having the name attached is enough. It is almost as if Burna Boy is listening intently during the conversations with Momodou Jallow, the U.K. grime rapper known as J Hus, who gets the lion’s share of the tense “Cloak & Daggers,” as he does with post-reggaeton icon J Balvin on the aptly-titled “Rollercoaster.” Each of his sparring partners holds an aggressive hand, but it never overwhelms the Burna.
When another lover-man, Ed Sheeran, comes to play on the pillowy “For My Hand,” Burna opens the door just enough for the British crooner to drop his terse verse and a few lovely harmonies before making the moody track his own again. Remember I used the word ‘machismo’ up top? There is a hearty brand of male competitiveness here, on “Love, Damini,” that never bleats or chest-beats itself into maddening braggadocio. Everything on Burna Boy’s new album is never too hot or too cold. It’s just right.
On occasion, such symmetry and solace is overbearing and a little too perfect. The dream pairing of Burna and Khalid on “Wild Dreams” never achieves the steam it should have. The frankly fluid “Jagele” is a little too watery. And the wordy socio-critique of “Common Person” merely drifts into the overly oxygenated ether of Burna’s mix. Missteps such as these — especially on an album with nearly 20 songs — mean little when its main man has made yet another vocally and lyrically poignant, to say nothing of sonically immersive, step into the future of Afro-Fusion with “Love, Damini.”