Ten years on and Burna Boy is playing in venues that he had dreamt of.
Ever since the release of debut album Life, the Nigerian Afrobeat singer has grown from a promising talent who performed at clubs to becoming the first African artist to sell out stadium shows in Europe and North America.
Those sold-out concerts at London Stadium and New York’s Citi Field not only places him in a rarefied category of pop stardom, but it also increases the anticipation for the August 24 release of his next album I Told Them.
With a new world tour planned and undoubtedly featuring more stadium gigs, does the Location singer have what it takes to pull off such a mammoth feat regularly?
Here is what The National learnt from Burna Boy’s headline performance in front of 30,000 people at the Big Slap Festival in Malmo, Sweden on Friday.
1. He has mass appeal
A key factor to Burna Boy’s rise is an all-encompassing appeal.
Selling out stadiums often requires a body of work that attracts casual listeners and dedicated fans. Burna Boy’s successful headline performance at the Big Slap Festival shows he has achieved that balance.
In a day of eclectic performances by hip-hop, RnB, pop and EDM acts, his performance was sparkling in its positivity and genre-bending songs.
Whether it’s the euphoric hooks of Wonderful to the grinding Afrobeats groove of Gbona, there is something for everyone to sing and dance to in a Burna Boy show.
2. He has a killer band
Another aspect that distinguishes Burna Boy from arena-performing peers Wizkid and Davido is that he performs with full live accompaniment on stage.
Then again to describe The Outsiders as a mere backing band is a disservice.
At the Big Slap Festival, they totalled a dozen, featuring five backing singers along with a horn and rhythm section.
With no DJ in sight, the group skillfully recreated the colourful melange of West African and Western sounds and styles of Burna Boy tracks.
Better yet, the band also puts on a show of their own.
The Outsiders often take the front of the stage with their instruments – including portable drum sets – and dance away with Burna Boy and the crowd.
More than entertainment, it is these kind of seemingly off-the-cuff moments that make stadium shows special.
3. He is a showman
While there is a fair share of bravado, Burna Boy’s onstage demeanour has an endearing child-like glee.
Both aspects came to light in Malmo in a particularly concerning moment.
During the opening minutes of the show, Burna Boy fell headfirst into one of the spotlights.
Using a towel to dabble the blood away from the gash on his head, bravado mode kicked in as he coolly stated: “I will bleed for my fans".
A few minutes later, his mega-watt smile was back as he danced around the stage and engaging with the crowds.
While his recorded vocals are often a seductive croon, Burna Boy dials it up on stage giving high-energy performances for songs such as Ye and Last Last.
Blending along with his backing vocalist, the concert is full of some awe-inspiring vocal harmonies owing more to gospel music than Afrobeats.
The fact the music was accessible enough that crowds sang along to the lyrics that featured a mix of languages including Nigeria’s Yoruba, Igbo and pidgin English, is the biggest sign that Burna Boy is not done conquering stadiums yet.