Tems’ Debut Album is the Searing Spiritual We Need

June 7, 2024
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Like many loving mothers, Témìládè Openiyi’s mom prophesied that her daughter would be extraordinary. She had imagined her baby girl on a more traditional path (college, office job) as she reared her, but when Témìládè – whose name means “The crown is mine” in Yoruba – decided instead to remake the face of Nigerian pop in her image as Tems, the mother reminded her child of her destiny. “‘Don’t forget the name I told you and she’s a special baby,’” Tems’s mom said on her first EP, 2020’s For Broken Ears, recalling what she told others before Tems was born. Just over three years later – after seeing her daughter have more success as a musician than most artists will know in their lifetime – Tems’ mother reaffirms her purpose in a spoken bit on Born in the Wild, the debut album Tems has already managed to shift culture ahead of.

“So my dear, I can see now why you are stumbling a bit and having some mental doubts,” Tems’ mom says on the interlude “Special Baby,” coming after an introductory confessional set to just guitar, reminiscent of the way her “Témìládè Interlude” followed the phenomenal, piano-driven “Interference” on Ears. “Never lose your focus. Don’t be out there to please anybody. You’re only there to please God.” Later on the album, her managers are heard similarly trying to steer her straight: be the good in the world, they advise her. Sing the truth. Though she’s been widely beloved for her frilless, heartstring-tugging sound since stealing the scene on Wizkid’s hit “Essence” and dominating R&B radio with “Free Mind,” Born in the Wild reveals that her newfound fame, like her life in Lagos before it, has been even more perilous than she let on. “‘How it feel?’ It’s killing me,” she sings plainly on “Burning.”

Tems has worked hard for this. She bucked the conventional Afrobeats popular in her country to make more alternative music and had to learn to produce for herself to do so. In a recent interview with Nigerian YouTuber Korty EO, she said that as she navigated the male-dominated Nigerian studio scene on her own, she’d have to wear extra baggy clothes to cover up the shapely figure she’s only recently come to accent. To avoid advances, she tried to make it painstakingly clear that she was only there to sing. She carried a similar air of seriousness into her early ascent. Her evolution in the public eye is clear: though she’s consistently given the same gorgeous Mezzo-Soprano on stage as on wax, she’s grown more animated, playful in both movement and vocal reimaginings – compare her first Tiny Desk to her second, released this week. 

Born in the Wild measures the soul-work it’s taken to get here. All of it – the professional, the familial, the spiritual – has paid off on an album so rich that the listening experience is a physical one as much as it is emotional. It’s made timeless with luscious, instrumental production that she spearheaded alongside Ghanaian Afropop maestro GuiltyBeats and the very sparing use of only six other producers, including mavens Sarz, London on Da Track, and P2J. Together, they curate a seamless blend of stripped down ballads, the cool of 1990s R&B with flecks of SWV and Sade, joyous highlife, Afro-dance music like Amapiano, and rugged hip-hop (her rap performance on “T-Unit” is especially endearing). It’s made transcendent with Tems’ striking delivery of her own biting observations and demands of the world and herself. 

The wild that Tems was born in is more than the bustling megacity of roughly 24 million people that is her hometown, where, she told Rolling Stone in 2021, “Everybody’s in survival mode. . . .If everybody is trying to survive then nobody has love.” As she explained in a recent Apple Music interview, her wilderness is a state of being. The titular track is a jolting communion between Tems and stirring strings where she recalls how her life of confusion and solitude blossomed under the giving hand of a benevolent power. “And the world is mine,” she bellows thrice. “You’re changing all of my issues.” 

That “Born in the Wild” deals in the gratitude and grace of a contemporary Christian song doesn’t feel like a coincidence. When the album’s first single “Me & U” dropped in October, it raised concerns that Tems’ respected pen had turned sophomoric, and some worried the charm of her freeform lyrics had run its course. It’s simple, repetitive: “This is my decision,” “I don’t think you listen,” “Make me your person,” “Only me and you,” she sings again and again. But the song’s power comes from Tems walking the fine line between universality and specificity that the best songwriters so often do. “Me & U”  essentially slips gospel into today’s secular AfrobeatsWhen its music video was released, depicting Tems draped in a white gown, standing ankle deep in vast waters, she quickly knocked down the circulating notion that she was embodying deities of indigenous Yoruba faith. “Actually it’s about Jesus Christ teaching me how to walk on water,” she said in a quick but dense exaltation on X, formerly Twitter. “I have been forever transformed. I am His forever. THATS JUST ME DOE.”

“Me & U” hinted at the album’s central theme of living for a higher purpose – in relationships, in her work, in her emotional regulation. Tems does some of her most evocative writing yet here, like on “Boy O Boy,” where she vividly describes looking at a man she wants to strangle while quietly suffering the body aches his “rubbish” has caused her. Tems told Korty EO that she’s never really been in love – love, she says, is when someone can look straight into your open ass and still want you. Still, she seems to sing about coming close to love on Born in the Wild, but even songs that are seemingly romantic or sensual feel spiritual, sometimes specifically in the Christian lexicon. Take the heartbreak balm “Unfortunate,” which she introduced on her recent Tiny Desk performance as a song about her falling victim to someone. It actually finds her empowered. “Maybe it’s fortunate you’re unfortunate,” she sings with a lot of optimism and a little disgust. “In the words of my mother, I’m living in victory.”

The albums’ greatest success, though, is in the way its metaphysical themes eclipse any particular religion. This is especially resonant with the way recent generations have come to engage with spiritually. So many of us are amateur astrologers, yogis and meditators, we channel our moral compases into activism and music. We’re the generations that social media tried to destroy, living in an era where mental health crises proliferate and long-lauded institutions crumble along with their facades of integrity. All this has pushed many of us into often untraditional psychological and spiritual practices – some of us are the first in our families to go to therapy, some of us do tarot. Tems has her God and skillfully manages to make that unique relationship ubiquitous. 

In all this, Born in the Wild is intense, but not severe. “Wickedest” is primed for the dancefloor and includes a brief sample of the 1999 Pan-African party anthem “1er Gaou” by Magic System; a sample she’s smart not to overwork. The single “Love Me Jeje” is a masterpiece, soaked in sun and major-key dopamine, communal in call and response. “Hold On,” the final track, tackles the longing and pain of her hit “Free Mind” from a place of hard-earned peace, and feels like being rocked to sleep by the sea.

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If there is any note to give this budding visionary, it’s that she should have challenged herself to make the album more concise. Eighteen tracks is too many to fully engage with at once, no matter how special they are. The cheeky blues of “You in My Face” would have served better as an interlude than a full song, the contemplative “Free Fall” with J. Cole would have been better off a short cut of just his standout verse as well. She proves herself as a rapper well enough on “T-Unit” that the other hip-hop song, “Turn Me Up,” could have been sacrificed – or vice versa.

But Tems is so deeply adored – in a way US media has yet to fully grasp – that the impulse to match the massive expectations for this album by giving so much is understandable. Apple Music’s Eddie Francis marveled at this: “There’s this certain reaction you get from people. People love you. Does that get weird?” Tems responded by noting how pure that love feels to her, though she knows it’s not normal. Perhaps this is what her mom saw coming.



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