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The Grace of Tems
There's so much happening for Tems, and new EP, "If Orange Was A Place," put it all in focus.
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Tems is different. You can’t draw a line from the Lagos-born singer to another artist in Nigeria. Her melodies are fluid. Her writing explores humanity in immersive, sensual representations of her mind. Depending on how she wields it, her sharp voice can be the last thing you hear on your descent into sleep. And when she leans heavily into it, the texture jars you up from slumber, startling you into consciousness.
The 26-year-old singer is having her moment in the sun. Her collaboration with compatriot Wizkid on ‘Essence’ has gone platinum, soundtracking summer 2021, and smashing every record held by Nigerian artists. She’s making the Billboard Hot 100 her playground, and raising the ceiling of achievement for local talents. Tems is dueting with Drake on Certified Lover Boy, selling out venues across the world, including a fire set she played at the legendary live music venue, S.O.B.s in New York. Everything is coming together nicely for her.
Tems, born Temilade Openiyi, is generally considered a child of grace. For one who is relatively new in the Nigerian music industry, she’s sped up her process of ‘blowing.’ With 2 pop hits, two EPs, and strategic collaboration, she’s ran away beyond Nigeria, and into distant markets. 12 million monthly Spotify listeners are in her corner. A placement on one of the world’s most valued albums is the stuff of happy dreams. Around every music market, a Drake collaboration qualifies as a win of the highest proportions. By picking up a platinum plaque for guest work on Wizkid’s ‘Essence’ in the USA —which means Tems has sold 1 million units of a song in the world’s biggest music market —she’s set a new height of achievement for Nigerian artists. No previous generation of local musicians have accomplished this. And if you are looking from the outside, you see the stars aligning for the singer-songwriter. It’s inexplicable. ‘Grace’ is a comfortable way to make it make sense. ‘Grace’ is humanity’s attempt at understanding meteoric success.
2020’s For Broken Ears EP was a surprise to many new listeners who had taken to her story after her first hit. In the build-up to her first project, Tems had broken through mainstream awareness with ‘Try me,’ a defiant song about rising above enemies and detractors. It was terrific stuff. The crowd ate it. Pairing vulnerable poetry with mind-numbing pop beats can be potent. Especially when you have that voice. Earlier singles, ‘Mr Rebel’ and ‘Looku Looku,’ had already put her on the upside of the industry radar. For Tems, the ‘Try Me’ win only confirmed what her underground fans already knew would happen; her vocal powers are unparalleled; her writing can make deep emotional places hospitable enough for more than a visit; she has range, and can deliver across a spectrum of sounds and genres. That’s why songs like ‘Damages’ can continue the pop thread, but are hard to come by in quantity.
While pop success can create demands for a specific sound, Tems continues to utilise her larger projects for an exploration into her humanity. Packed full of vulnerable songwriting, textured vocal deliveries, and an exploration into the human condition. She centres defiance as a go-to theme, processing love, pain, inner turbulence, with a bounceback. A resurrection of self. Self-revival. Little wonder her movement is called, ‘Rebel Gang.’ This artful rebel is winning. Her way.
If Orange Was A Place arrives, bogged by expectation from the weight of her summer success. The crowd from “Essence” is larger, the story is higher, bigger bets have been placed. With Ghanaian record producer, Guilty Beatz helming the production, it’s the first time we are seeing Tems open up her process. While her debut project For Broken Ears was self-produced, there’s an external contingent bringing new ideas to the building. The confidence on here soars. The writing retains poetic license, carrying on the exploratory thread of the human condition.
If Orange Was A Place commits to Tems’ personal rebellion, insecurity, angst, sporadic bursts of finger-pointing, and an inclination to always stand up to the smoke. When you lead a gang of rebels, being in charge means galvanizing your people. Standing up for yourself isn’t just a personal push for emancipation and self-actualization. Your actions (and in this case, your art) permeates numerous lives, leading them to confront various strains of the same demon in their lives. “My voice is a mystery, but they always tryna diss me” she sings on replay, affirming a blatant truth of her artistry. No matter how far and fast Tems have climbed, her vocal delivery continues to polarise listeners. Yes, no one can figure it out. How she can take up multiple spaces on different records, presenting diverse deliveries, while returning to the soul in her music. Tems has admitted to feeling conscious about her voice as a child. As an adult, it makes others conscious of her uniqueness.
Starting with ‘Crazy Things,’ Tems is anti-love, repelling an insistent romantic interest. And she’s not nice about it. Rejection comes in many forms, and Tems knows how to dish them all. It starts off with direct jabs about the inadequacy of what is on offer (“So you need someone to deceive, and you're trying to think that I'm the one for you. But don't you see? You're not everything”), to full-on threats about the madness on offer, down the road. “If you need somebody craze, you go chop somebody craze…” And when the love is finally desired, it becomes hard to grasp on ‘Found,’ the brightest spot on the EP. Brent Faiyaz, a surprise inclusion on the project, duets with Tems. It’s a mushy affair, packed full of longing and innocent desires. Like that frustrating-yet-titillating push-and-pull when two lovers are on the cusp of commitment. Should we jump off this cliff? Each prodding the other, looking for reasons to cross the divide. “Basically, I might not be weak....” Tems offers her most powerful use of her abilities here. ‘Avoid things’ shoots along the same lines, while the closer ‘Vibe out’ is a repetitive journey into escapism. The world can be a weird place. Life’s a turd. Why not vibe out today?
It’s been 3 years since Tems has broken through, off of a decision to quit her job and pursue her art. “My decision to quit my job, that leap that I took, literally everything was just coming together,” she told Apple Music. “Just off ’Try Me’ alone I had a lot of shows. I couldn’t go out anymore, I couldn’t go to the supermarket anymore, I was like, 'ok something is happening.' ’Try Me’ came out of that strife, and I really wanted it to mean something, especially for Nigerians, people that live in this country, because things are hard."
And while ‘Try Me’ moved her forward, it’s still her ship sail. To control and to sail. And she’s ran it well. It’s easy to miss that Tems quickly rose through, and above the local market, before she could fully convince the home fans. Her big pop records—‘Try me’,’ ‘Damages,’ ‘Essence’—are dance floor material, she’s smartly opted to showcase her range on her EPs. This approach has either thrown casual listeners off, or made endeared her to new appreciators.
Tems is taking on newer fronts in a male dominated industry, and growing in public while at it. There’s a photo of her on the internet, holding up her first platinum plaque, alongside Wizkid. ‘Grace’ might be a consensus descriptor, but what if it isn't the only culprit? What if the rules of engagement are changing, as our local industry continues it march to global assimilation. What if music stardom and success are no longer length-dependent, as it has always been? What if smarter artistic contributions weigh more than conventional growth? What if it’s now based on potency and impact? Rather than the good ol’ ‘waiting your turn…? Sure you do have to wait your turn in life, and the music industry. That can be such a cruel affair, filled with reluctant learning, and many failed attempts to fly.
But the game is changing. And it’s rewarding new winners, in new ways. Tems have made all the right decisions, and its landed her in all the good spaces. We are watching and dancing to her grow right in front of us. If Orange Was A Place is another page in that story. A step into the novelty of her situation. One where multiple concert dates in the US await. Where the numbers continue to climb. And a meeting with Rihanna is just another day on the job.