Review: ‘Born In The Wild’ by Tems

Tems was, and still is, the girl on fire

Tems’ story is one many would agree was written in the stars. Not just for how seamlessly she forged a path to global stardom, but also how she seemed to arrive long before she got started. Only in stories like hers do words like “destiny” or “fate” arise to describe a trajectory so against the grain yet so inevitable, many struggle to register the colossal shift till it is much too late. 

And as the world sat in eager anticipation for the glorious album debut from the R&B singer-producer, a slew of unbelievers rose to the surface to stir the pot around Tems’ talent or, according to them, lack thereof.  Even though it would be easier to dismiss all sceptics as trolls, a more candid resolution lies in the reality that not many parallels – if any at all – in Nigeria’s music history can be drawn to Temilade Openiyi. Since quitting her corporate job in 2018, per a life-changing message she received from her daily devotion, to deliver one of the most promising R&B debuts of the decade, no amount of doubt can discredit the fact that Tems is currently fulfilling her life’s purpose. 

While the rest of the world first caught wind of the unrivalled force that is Tems via a stellar performance on Wizkid’s “Essence,” back home, she had already scored points as an artist to watch when she audaciously declared herself the leading vibe in 2018’s “Mr Rebel.” Still, it wasn’t until “Try Me” – a striking embodiment of her emotional yet gritty artistry – that Tems slowly began seeping into mainstream listeners’ consciousness, later earning her a small cult following that set her up to invigorate what was then considered popular Nigerian music. Six years, an RCA record deal, two EPs and now a debut album down the line, it’s safe to say that Tems has done just that, and much more. When cataloguing the string of accomplishments under her belt, one might first think of Tems’ role as a peerless collaborator – and understandably so. Recruitments for Beyonce’s ‘RENAISSANCE,’ and Drake’s ‘Certified Lover Boy,’ co-writing duties with Rihanna or even the Grammy-earning “Wait For U,” are accomplishments that would be criminal to glaze over. Still, ask any of the Nigerian women in Tems’ Rebel Gang and they’ll tell you that international stardom isn’t the reason they love Tems; for many, it’s the nuanced way she voices the stories of a generation that often goes unspoken for that truly makes us love her.

Following the titular track of her debut album, ‘Born in the Wild,’ Tems’ mother hops on “Special Baby(Interlude)” to emphasise just how fated her journey has been. Over melancholic piano chords borrowed from the intro, we sit in on an undiluted conversation between mother and daughter, where Tems’ mother highlights just how ordained the superstar’s journey is. “They keep on asking, “why Temi?, why Tems? Don’t they have another person again?/They themselves do not know why, they can’t understand it,” her mother laughs, recollecting the words of naysayers who are perplexed by the force that is Tems and the support she receives. Tems’ mother encourages her to push all the doubt aside, because she was born to do this. Tems’ own sentiments, however, are easily reflected on “Born in the Wild, the perfect introductory insight into her headspace at the start of her journey, and all the obstacles she had to overcome before getting here. Silky guitar strums reiterate her evidently burdened spirit, casting a light on her need to conquer but by the end of the track, she arrives as assured as her mother singing, “The world…is mine and the time…is now.” 

Dreamily reminiscent of her introduction to the scene, “Burning” delves deeper into both external and self-inflicted pressures, set alight by an unbridled desire to succeed. The track acts as a mirror to her emotions and state of mind, aptly reflected in our 2020 cover story for The NATIVE’s Print Issue 4 where writer, Damilola Animashaun, described her as one who has  “unlocked society’s cage and set herself on fire to light the way for a new vanguard.” Tems was, and still is, the girl on fire. But now more than ever, she is the perfect embodiment of just how far a fiery passion and an introspective approach to life can take you. “Burning” gives Tems the first opportunity on the album – later seen on “Ready” – to communicate just how badly she wants her story to be one of actualised dreams, while snagging production credits with assistance from Ghanaian producer, Guiltybeatz. The pair, whose combined talent is the undeniable backbone of the album’s production, further establish themselves as a dynamic duo after transporting us to the dancefloor with “Wickedest.” The track starts with Magic System’s global crowd pleaser, “1er Gaou” instantly uplifting the atmosphere, shortly followed by groovy basslines reminding us that R&B can have you up on your feet. She holds a composed tone with a sheer effortlessness that alludes to her laser focus on the grind, paired with an unshakeable confidence that her visions, however brazen, will be actualised. 


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The beauty of art, especially music, is its reinstative power. From sampling to interpolating, music draws references from the past to inform the stories of the present, intensifying the shared experience of the human race. When done right, we get badass anthems like “Wickedest” or the refreshing, reimagined version of Seyi Sodimu 1997 cult classic of the same name, “Love Me Jeje.” An evocative ode to her roots, Tems turned to one of the country’s greatest canonical love songs to soundtrack the official beginning of the journey to her debut album. Her interpretation was an instant favourite, building ammo for her hit-making abilities and versatility, clearly hinting at an exciting run that has only just begun. Tems is backed by her close-knit team, including her personal stylist and friend, Dunsin Wright, for a playful outro of the track. “Gangsta,” though it takes a rougher, more melancholic approach, doesn’t fall too far behind on the album’s successful reference pulls with its subtle Diana King interpolation. While the original, “L-L-Lies,” chronicles the story of a woman despondently confronting her partner’s infidelity, Tems comes in guns blazing “That’s why, that’s why I need a gangsta, That’s why, that’s why I need a bad one, That’s why, that’s why I need violence.” She clearly states that any attempts to dim her light will never go unnoticed, stressing that her circle only has room for genuine people. 

As the intoxicating Amapiano melodies of “Get it Right” arrive, we’re fully abreast with Tems unrelenting hit-making abilities, spurred on by an experimental approach to her craft; and who better to enlist than seasoned vocalist, Asake and superstar producer, Sarz. Though Mr Money’s enchanting delivery is commendable, instantly making “Get it Right” one of the album’s earworms, he is well within his sonic comfort zone so a solid verse simply was to be expected. It is Tems’ ability to glide over the heart-thumping log drums and dazzling shakers, however, that leaves the track stuck on instant loop. She gracefully rides the wave, boldly expressing her desires for and commitment to her love interest, “All the boys dey on dnd, so you know what you mean to me.” A clear standout already, it helps that Asake comes armed with charming lines like, “You dey do me one kind, shey me I no go die/This your body like coke, too bad, maka why?” 

The album’s tone takes a sharp turn with pensive strums on “Unfortunate,” where she expresses indifference to a love interest that treated her poorly but is trying to re-enter her life. Rather than seeing the unfavourable treatment as a reflection of herself, Tems knows that she’s too young to be hot and bothered, pointing back to the album’s overarching theme of self-empowerment. 

In many ways, Tems has found the sweet spot between being unbothered and having moments of intense fixation that linger in her subconscious. “Boy O Boy” deals with the dissonance that comes with navigating those opposites while seeking resolution on her feelings. Her brain recognises that a love interest is no good for her but her heart is willing to give him another chance. “Hold me in your mind/Before I leave you on the streets,” she finally warns, seemingly deciding to focus on elevating her best self. Where “Boy O Boy” was contemplative, “Forever” is more boisterous as the singer moves assuredly over the magnetic DameDame and GuiltyBeatz-produced instrumental. Her delivery is also loosened in a way that recalls some of the ‘90s most classic post-heartbreak excoriations. Where those songs came from a place of deep-rooted passion, Tems is operating with resolution on “Forever.”

Since coming onto the scene, Tems has been a critical part of an innovative generation that has upended any traditionalist definitions of Afropop, and ‘Born in the Wild’ takes things up another notch, prioritising free flowing self-expression over conformist formulas. The J Cole-featuring “Free Fall” sees her dial in for a candid look at what happens when reality doesn’t match expectations. Tems is not a fan of lingering when she’s not getting what she wants and pointedly states that she’d rather be alone. It sounds like wisdom accumulated from a lifetime’s worth of navigating near-relationships that don’t quite work at the end of it all. 

It was always an ambitious gambit to turn in an 18-song album, and there are moments when the sequencing on ‘Born in the Wild’ can be jarring, perhaps intended as a means to spark some life into the listening experience. There are other points where it feels like two songs were mixed together as one, as it does on “Turn Me Up.” The opening half sees Tems sing-rap about the state of the world and her place in it before settling into a pidgin-accented verse that sees more big-talking from the singer. It all feels like an attempt by Tems to stake her claim as one of her generation’s most well-regarded singers but it lacks the gritty appeal of an old classic like “Try Me” or the emotional lucidity of “Wickedest.” It’s a rare misstep that’s quickly corrected with the pre-released “Me & U.” Part faith hymnal and part love declaration, “Me & U” feels like a salve for tough times that could only have emerged from the deepest reservoirs of Tems’ consciousness as she weaves her personal convictions on love into her adoration for a larger-than-life divine figure that she clearly craves a closer connection to. It all works wonderfully for one of the album’s highlights. 

Long-time listeners of Tems will have long worked out that she’s a fan of Hip-hop with the singer occasionally dipping into the genre for musical inspiration. Over a boom-bap instrumental on “T-Unit,” she pays homage to the genre and her own resilience. “Never surrender/Never afraid,” she tantalisingly raps about her journey. The secret genius of Tems’ music has always been how she uses her experiences as a map for her listeners looking to find themselves; it’s a task she takes quite seriously as evinced by the closing stretch of “T-Unit” where she breathlessly sings, “Throw your hands up, let me hear you say, ‘Victory until the death of me,’ as though delivering battle-time motivation to her weary troops. 

Album closer, “Hold On” is similarly an admonishment. Anyone even faintly familiar with Tems’ story knows about her quitting her job at a digital marketing to start an improbable career in music. It’s been a whirlwind six years since her debut song came out and she’s now using her journey to urge her audience to hold on to their dreams however hard that may be. Perseverance is a theme that’s constantly returned to across Tems’ debut. “Do it crying, but fucking do it,” one of her managers admonishes her on “Voices In My Head (Interlude).” It’s what Tems has been doing since she sang her heart out all those years ago on “Mr Rebel.” Now, it’s time to recount the cost of her swashbuckling journey. With ‘Born In The World,’ Tems opens up a portal to her soul; tracking a meteoric rise to global superstardom, her triumphs over self-doubt and a complex journey to accepting, and as she does that, this is her moment.  

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]

Words by Nwanneamaka Igwe and Wale Oloworekende