Exactly ten years ago, Burna Boy released his debut album. L.I.F.E was a bold and unsafe debut; has it lived up to its promise?
On 12 August 2013, ten years ago, Burna Boy’s debut album, L.I.F.E (an acronym for Leaving an Impact for Eternity), was released. This was six years before Burna Boy became the self-proclaimed African Giant; eight years before he won a Grammy for Twice as Tall in the questionable ‘Best Global Album’ category in 2021; nine years before he performed at his sold-out Madison Square Garden show in April 2022; and nine years before his December 2022 Lagos show, where he kept fans waiting for over four hours.
Revisiting Burna Boy’s first album for this 10-year review transported me to a simpler time—when Burna Boy was not such a controversial figure and Afrobeats albums were commonly bought in traffic (not streamed on Apple music or Spotify). It took me back to the era when Afrobeats was gearing up for the huge momentum and the widespread success it is currently benefitting from in today’s music climate. Re-visiting Burna Boy’s L.I.F.E—ten years later—is a nostalgic experience.
LERIQ AND THE MECHANICS OF L.I.F.E
L.I.F.E is one of Burna Boy’s most versatile albums, as he delivered a range of musical styles through 19 songs. The three lead singles ‘Like to Party’, ‘Tonight’, and ‘Yawa Dey’, are timeless records—the lyrics to these songs are still ingrained in my mind—years after L.I.F.E’s official release. In addition, each song showcased Burna Boy’s musical range. On ‘Like to Party’, Burna Boy delivered a distinctly unique record which infused his signature and seamless blend of Jamaican slang and pidgin English, an interpolation of a common nursey rhyme (‘rain, rain go away’), and R & B inspired melodies on the verses. ‘Tonight’, was slightly more up-tempo than ‘Like to Party’ and further confirmed Burna Boy’s talent for delivering memorable lyrics and enjoyable melodies. On ‘Yawa Dey’, Burna Boy was directly inspired by the Galala music, pioneered by artists such as Daddy Showkey and Danfo Drivers. This highlighted Burna Boy’s interest in experimenting with different sub-cultures and genres of Nigerian music, asides from Afrobeats.
The songs on L.I.F.E were different and ahead of their time, particularly when these songs are examined within the landscape of 2013 Afrobeats music. In addition to the lead singles on the album, songs such as ‘Smooth Sailing’, ‘Na So E Suppose Be’, ‘Run My Race’, and ‘My Loda Ma Motto’ sounded like nothing else that was playing on mainstream radio in Nigeria at the time. In 2013, the country found itself in an ‘Afrobeats dance challenge’ frenzy, with Wizkid’s ‘Azonto’, Kcee’s ‘Limpopo’ and Iyanya’s ‘Kukere’, being notable and very popular Afrobeats songs that year. It would have made perfect sense for Burna Boy to follow this formula and include a Galala dance challenge that would have paired well with ‘Yawa Dey’. However, he exposed his audience to different musical styles and forms of dance music, which set him apart from popular Afrobeats artist at the time. This was evident through the song titled ‘Always Love You’—which incorporated electronic dance music elements—and the third song on the album, ‘Say So’. On the two-minute mark of ‘Say So’, Burna Boy discarded his distinct vocals to deliver a Fújì-inspired section. Songs like ‘Always Love You’ and ‘Say So’ were bold musical choices for a new Nigerian artist showcasing a debut album in 2013.
The songs on L.I.F.E were all produced by LeriQ, whose contribution to L.I.F.E and Burna Boy’s early discography in general, should not go unnoticed. Burna Boy and LeriQ were both signed to Aristokrat Records in 2012, a year before L.I.F.E was released. The organic musical chemistry between both artists was clear on the album, as LeriQ’s production complemented Burna Boy’s vocals seamlessly. LeriQ’s beat production, on songs such as ‘Jahs Love is True’ (featuring Wizkid) and ‘Dem No Know’ pushed the boundaries of what contemporary Nigerian music could sound like. These two songs, like many of the songs on L.I.F.E, cannot be neatly categorized as Afrobeats music. ‘Dem No Know’ incorporated hip-hop elements and although Burna Boy was harmonizing and singing on the songs, he adapted his singing style to make it more reminiscent of rap music, particularly on the verses. LeriQ’s production on ‘Jahs Love is True’ incorporated very little from Afrobeats. The song had a deep baseline, which is commonly heard on Afrobeats records but other elements—such as the 80s pop chords heard on the chorus and towards the end of the song—elevated the record and made it clear that LeriQ was not trying to adapt his beat style to the distinct Afrobeats production heard on many of Wizkid’s songs, particularly between 2011 to 2013. ‘Jahs Love is True’ was not only a good feature from one of the biggest Afrobeats artists at the time, it was also a distinctly afro-fusion record that combined Afrobeats (through Wizkid and Burna Boy’s delivery of the lyrics), with 80s pop music and hip-hop, through LeriQ’s production.
L.I.F.E: 10 YEARS LATER
The story of contemporary Afro-fusion and Afrobeats music cannot be told without discussing Burna Boy’s discography. L.I.F.E set a promising precedent, as it demonstrated Burna Boy’s commitment to exploring and mixing different sounds within his music. L.I.F.E is worth celebrating ten years later, as a bold and unsafe debut, which presented an alternative way of making popular music in 2013 Nigeria. Through L.I.F.E, Burna Boy brought experimental music styles and choices to the mainstream, channelling Dancehall, Afrobeats, Reggae, Fújì, EDM, Galala and Afrobeat all on one introductory album.
Debut albums are a special moment because they set the tone for the initial stages of an artist’s musical trajectory. Burna Boy’s self-affirmation and aspiration to be an artist that ‘leaves an impact for eternity,’ was not only clear through the album title, but equally reflected through the music on L.I.F.E. On the last song (‘Outro: Remember Me’), Burna Boy urges the listener to ‘Remember [him],’ as someone who is about to leave his mark on the music industry. Today, Burna Boy has transcended the genre of Afrobeats and Afro-fusion, as seen through his collaborations with a wide range of musical legends, such as Angélique Kidjo, Damian Marley and Youssou N’Dour. While Burna Boy has achieved many great milestones ten years since his formal debut, further personal development and growth (particularly in the way he treats his fans) would also be great to see⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].