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How Nigeria’s Tems became the continent’s top new global star

By Shingai Darangwa
Posted on Friday, 29 October 2021 19:14

Tems (photo: twitter/@temsbaby)

Since 'Essence' hit in the summer of 2020, Tems has been like an ascendent star. But for a while, aside from some early fan love from those who quickly took to her catchy hook, she largely flew under the radar.

Tems is not a clear-cut superstar. She comes across as shy and awkward. In a time where mainstream female artists are unfairly judged based on their looks, the mystery with which she carries herself has been a far cry from the eccentricity that many think is necessary to make it big in music today.

She doesn’t post much on her Instagram or Twitter, we rarely see her engage online and she mostly avoids making any unnecessary public appearances. Her obscurity and indifference to her celebrity status is a mystery in an age of oversharing. “I grew up with a single mom,” she told Apple Music. “I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I was extremely introverted, not many people knew that I could sing […] The texture of my voice was definitely an insecurity.”

The shyness of the 26-year-old Nigerian singer disappears in her music, where her voice is loud and proud – and the tales pour out.

The first time I heard ‘Essence’, which has emerged as the standout cut from Wizkid’s Billboard-charting album Made In Lagos, I thought: ‘This girl is a vibe, but her voice sounds kinda strange.’

I didn’t warm up to her quickly. It wasn’t until her largely self-produced debut EP, For Broken Ears, dropped a month later that I got it. For Broken Ears, a tightly produced and packaged 20-minute project, showcased her vulnerable sensibilities and, most importantly, her penchant for strong, vivid storytelling.

On ‘Free Mind’, a moody, personal 5-minute ballad, Tems delicately and masterfully speaks about the constant battle one experiences to free their mind from the uncertainties of daily life. The beat then suddenly drops, the song changes tempo, and a piano riff comes to the fore. “I might be falling deep,” she bellows – painfully and repeatedly as the song reaches an unexpected climax. Not only does she not sound like anyone else, she also constructs her songs in a completely unique way.

Genre fluidity

“There’s definitely an advancement of African music; I think the world is getting more attuned to it every day,” Tems told Billboard last month. “With how much easier it is to get access to so many different kinds of music, I think it’s only a matter of time before people discover more and more African music.” Although Tems leans towards RnB, her sound doesn’t easily fit into the typical sound of the genre. There are shades of Afrobeats, reggae and soul embedded in her music.

“Struggle breeds character… You can’t learn if you’re comfortable.”

Tems’ genre fluidity has been embraced by streaming services and radio stations that have quickly lapped up her music. Apple Music included Tems as part of its Africa Rising programme, while YouTube included her in its burgeoning artist Foundry programme. At the BET Awards, she was nominated for Best International Act.

Last month, Tems was the subject of much global fanfare after she was featured on Drake’s blockbuster album Certified Lover Boy.

To capitalise on the hype, Tems released her sophomore EP, If Orange Was A Place, two weeks after Certified Lover Boy came out.

The EP ‘Crazy Tings’ is the project’s lead single. Elsewhere, ‘Found’, a gentle and poignant summertime tune driven by a delicious guitar riff, slows things down beautifully. Brent Faiyaz, a featured artist, takes advantage of the lush, sensual production as he makes his case to a lover that he’s someone worth keeping.

While maintaining much of the unique flavour of her previous offering, If Orange Was A Place showcases the Nigerian artist’s musical growth. The production, helmed by Ghanaian producer Guilty Beatz, is also much more full and urban. As in For Broken Ears, love and heartbreak exist here, but Tems sounds more in control and less naive to its complexities. “Struggle breeds character,” she recently told Apple Music. “You can’t learn if you’re comfortable.” She’s clearly been learning a lot and it shows.

In an era where artists are packing their projects with numerous songs to take advantage of streaming algorithms, it’s refreshing to see Tems staying true to herself and her music once more with such a refined and focused project. If Orange Was A Place confirms that Tems isn’t a fluke, then now that she’s made it clear. We patiently await her first full-length project with bated breath.

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