The Nigerian singer-songwriter follows up her dynamic hit “Try Me” with a stark and voluble EP that blends the warmth of R&B with contemporary Afrobeats.
After barely surviving secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria, Temilade Openiyi did everything she could to avoid going to college, purposely missing enrollment deadlines for the schools her mother would submit applications to. With few friends, a stubborn depression, and an impeccable singing voice—one thick and smooth like cold butter—music felt like her only calling. Her mother, however, wasn’t having it, and sent Temilade to a university in South Africa that offered her late registration.
While studying economics there in 2016, she began working on a song called “Try Me.” Freestyling at first, she sang painstakingly of a destructive love, and crafted the song’s skeleton of organs, pads, and synths after teaching herself how to produce music on YouTube. Back in Lagos, Tems tested the song at a few events, but felt pressured to put music on hold once more and take an office job. It crushed her, as office jobs are wont to do. Finally, in early 2018, she decided she would sing, even if it meant she would starve. Her first single as Tems, the moody “Mr Rebel,” earned her a small but captivated fan base that she fed a second single (“Looku Looku”) to six months later. Then, in 2019, with co-production from Nigerian artist Remy Baggins, she finally released “Try Me.” Her most successful single to date, it’s earned around 12 million plays across multiple streaming platforms, with nearly 7 million between YouTube and Spotify alone.
Now, a year after “Try Me,” she injects the dynamism of the hit into her debut EP, For Broken Ears. Crafting songs that feel wholly new and deeply satisfying as the EP’s only songwriter and lead producer, she maintains the passion of her early singles but abandons the melancholy that defines them. Throughout the record, Tems contemplates her access to people, freedom, and ease, ultimately settling into her place and power in the new vanguard of Afropop. In the weeds of her lyrics, her ideas are patchy, as if all born from freestyles, but they never feel disjointed. Her stark voice melds them together, pulling them across subtle rhythmic backdrops that feel minimal compared to her striking singing.
Similarly to the output of her contemporaries in this new Afropop vanguard like Cruel Santino, Amaarae, and Odunsi (The Engine), Tems’ music expands the genre with a melange of American, African and Caribbean influences. The echo and organ on album opener “Interference” sound like Tems is singing gospel in a candlelit chapel, but her fervent flow-switching on “Ice T” and “Higher” is more rap cypher than church. Predominantly, For Broken Ears is an R&B record, with swirly synths and airy harmonies, and Tems could be mistaken for an American or British artist if not for her colorful drops of pidgin and her African intonation. At one point, Tems was uninspired by standard Afrobeats production, but here, she finds a way to incorporate it without losing her unique edge. Lead single “Damages” is an Afro-dancehall ballad. “The Key” sounds like Afrobeats meets quiet storm.
Tems’ avoidance of traditional Afrobeats makes sense considering the upbeat, uptempo nature of the genre. The singer seems in touch with the darkness that shrouded her adolescence—the stress, the heartbreak, the feeling that she does not belong. She sings of these things more than the jovial pursuit of lust and love that characterizes popular Afrobeats. She starts the album with an assertion of her state of mind: “If you thought I was disturbed before, baby boy, I’m gon’ disturb you now.” Yet, in the EP’s powerful opening, she’s not crazed or vengeful, she’s conciliatory; it’s her newfound sense of serenity that may irk her adversaries. “Give me shame—I give you peace” she adds, sounding tranquil.
In less than twenty minutes of music, Tems dips in and out of autonomy and captivity seamlessly. On “Free Mind,” the EP’s most compelling track, she’s pining for the very peace she finds in “Interference.” She’s steeped in a life of 5 a.m. alarms and pretending to be okay, as if written in the throes of her office job. “Set me free…Farther than eyes can handle, freer than ocean,” she bellows, her voice rich with longing. As she ends the record with “The Key,” where she proclaims, “their chains, they cannot hold me,” you believe her.
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