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Burna Boy Faces Success and Second Thoughts on ‘Love, Damini’

“Fame puts you there where things are hollow,” David Bowie sang back in 1975, and plenty of performers, before and after, have discovered the same thing. Their songs declare outsized ambitions and make premature boasts as careers begin. But then success, if it happens, brings as many pressures and perks — and, sometimes, a new willingness to confront misgivings.

Burna Boy — the Nigerian songwriter Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu — has risen steadily to international stardom over a decade of recording. In April, as part of his latest world tour, he became the first Nigerian act to headline the Madison Square Garden arena, featuring a cameo appearance — an elder-generation endorsement — from Senegal’s longtime musical ambassador, Youssou N’Dour.

Burna Boy’s sixth studio album, “Love, Damini,” is a trove of material: 19 full-fledged songs. He summoned an international roster of collaborators including blockbuster hitmakers — J Balvin and Ed Sheeran — along with Khalid, Kehlani, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Jamaican singer Popcaan and the British rapper J Hus. And like Burna Boy’s previous album, the Grammy-winning 2020 “Twice as Tall,” his new one by him both parades his accomplishments and admits to the doubts and regrets of an obsessive achiever.

Burna Boy calls his music Afrofusion. Its core is the elegantly minimal percussion—hand-played and electronic—of Nigerian Afrobeats, which uses impacts and silences to imply three-against-two syncopations. Abetted by some of Africa’s most inventive producers, Burna Boy connects Afrobeats to its worldwide kin: R&B, Jamaican dancehall, reggaeton, Congolese rumba, hip-hop and more. His voice from him, a velvety baritone, has a suave composition that can hint at easy assurance or a melancholy reticence, and while his melodies do not immediately seem sharp-edged, he places each note to add yet another layer of polyrhythm.

The music draws pleasure from every strategic detail: from the weave of sampled and echoing backup vocals in “Different Size,” from the percussive syllables that break up the title and refrain of “Kilometre,” from reversed guitar tones and distant reggae horns in “ Jagele,” from the saxophone curlicues that answer his voice in “Common Person.” The surfaces are glossy and reassuring; the inner workings are slyly playful. But Burna Boy broods more than he celebrates.

In “Glory,” the album’s opening song, Burna Boy promises “This is my story”; it begins with the sober South African harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, before piano chords chime in and Burna Boy sings that he’s been “having nightmares of the day I fall off.”

His guests often join him as fellow strivers. Khalid croons in the hymnlike “Wild Dreams,” as Burna Boy urges listeners to dream big but ends with a warning: “Remember Martin Luther King had a dream, and then he got shot.” J Balvin trades verses with him in “Rollercoaster,” a bilingual Afrobeats-dembow blend, with Burna Boy expressing gratitude, renouncing “the fast life” to be “pure of heart,” and resigning himself to ups and downs. And with Ed Sheeran, he shares “For My Hand,” a wedding-song-worthy vow of mutual devotion through rough times, singing, “Whenever I’m broken, you make me feel whole.”

Work-life imbalance destroys a romance in “Last Last,” the album’s most agitated song; over nervously strummed minor chords and a vocal phrase sampled from Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough,” Burna Boy sings, “I put my life into my job/And I know I’m in trouble.” In “It’s Plenty,” he notes, “Don’t wanna waste my days/I want to spend them on enjoyment,” but the production keeps the bouncy track at a distance, and soon Burna Boy is apologizing — “Don’t know how to show you my love” — and feeling numb and compulsive: “No matter what I do, it’s not enough.” In “How Bad Could It Be,” amid crystalline guitar picking and ghostly women’s voices, he’s more convincing as he details depression, alienation and anxiety than he is with the song’s halfhearted advice: “When you feel as sad as you can feel/Say , ‘How bad could it be?’”

He has other concerns, like the smog in his hometown, Port Harcourt. “Because of oil and gas, my city’s so dark/Pollution make the air turn black,” he sings in “Whiskey,” a midtempo track punctuated by vintage-sounding horn-section samples and furtive guitar runs. And even when he’s promising carnal delights — in “Dirty Secrets,” “Science” and “Toni-Ann Singh” — they’re mixed with minor chords and ominous undercurrents.

On “Love, Damini,” Burna Boy could easily have congratulated himself and strutted through new conquests instead of looking inward. But even now, he’s not self-satisfied enough to party — not this time.

Burna Boy
“Love, Damini”
(Atlantic)

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