Tems Sings Circles Around Her Struggles on ‘If Orange Was a Place'

© Roderick Ejuetami*

“Everything is special about Tems,” Wizkid, one of the brightest stars in Nigerian pop, told Rolling Stone last month. “Everything.” In just three years, Tems, 26, has established herself as one of the African diaspora’s most intriguing artists. She shines on Wizkid’s summer smash “Essence,” and dueted with Drake on Certified Lover Boy. Right now, she’s on a tour of the US, having just sold out New York City’s S.O.B.’s and with a turn at Afropunk Atlanta up next. From her first single, 2018’s “Mr Rebel,” Tems quietly introduced herself as a distinct voice in her native Nigeria’s musical landscape. Whereas much of the country’s popular music employs energetic polyrhythms and lively, uptempo melodies, Tems’ “Mr Rebel,” has a subdued foundation of spaced-out snaps and careful, plunking keys that showcase her deep, earthy singing. The song’s darkness and abstraction is now characteristic of her unique songwriting style. As much as “Mr Rebel” feels like a slow trudge through a tormented mind, Tems also declares her power on it: “I’m the winning sound/I’m the crown/I’m the vibe/I’m the leading vibe.” 

Tems stands firmly in this kind of self-assurance on her newest EP, If Orange Was Place. On the airy “Replay,” she scoffs at the audacity it would take to go up against her, a clear lyrical evolution from “Try Me,” her breakthrough ballad about being taken advantage of. “I really wan show that you really can’t test me,” she now sings in pidgin on “Replay.” Tems has often engaged with negativity, longing, and disappointment in her writing, but her new EP meets these challenges with a measured levity that sounds like true confidence. This buoyancy comes, in part, from its production. Whereas Tems produced the bulk of her debut project, last year’s For Broken Ears, GuiltyBeatz — a talented Ghanaian producer with a knack for dynamic African dance music —  helms most of her newest release. He brings together breezy guitars on “Found” and “Crazy Tings,” watery synths and pounding percussion on “Vibe Out,” and heavy bassline on “Avoid Things,” for a cohesive, upbeat palette over which Tems’ soul radiates. 

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No one sounds like Tems, so much so that when she was a young girl, she discouraged herself from singing with her true voice, with all its weighty might, relying on her falsetto instead. Though she grew to command this deep voice on her early singles like “Mr Rebel” and “Try Me,” on If Orange Was a Place, she nimbly shifts between both approaches, most brilliantly contrasting them within mere seconds on “Found.” Her ability to own her voice in many forms, and to show up cool and controlled, no matter what, is as much a display of confidence as the resilience she expresses in her lyrics. All together, If Orange Was a Place broadens Tems’ budding discography across moods and tempos, uniting all her strengths in a multi-faceted display of self-actualization.

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