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Tems remakes R&B in her image with ‘Born in the Wild’: 'I really want to feel it in my chest!'

After elevating Afropop's standing with a standout guest spot on Wizkid's "Essence" and becoming a secret weapon for Rihanna, Drake and Beyoncé, Tems is ready for center stage.
Adrienne Raquel
After elevating Afropop's standing with a standout guest spot on Wizkid's "Essence" and becoming a secret weapon for Rihanna, Drake and Beyoncé, Tems is ready for center stage.

Tems makes a great case for quitting. Before she was captivating millions with deep, dynamic vocals and setting a new pace for African artists on a global stage, the Nigerian singer-songwriter was daydreaming of the life in music she leads now. The only problem with this dream? Her stuffy, safe, corporate job in marketing.

“I took a leap,” the artist says. “Like, I jumped off the cliff. I didn’t know whether I would get wings. I didn’t know whether anybody would pick me up. I just jumped.”

At the start of 2018, young Temilade Openiyi knew the position was a dead end for her. But answering her real calling would require taking a risk — and facing down an unsupportive boss. “She was like, ‘If you're not careful, I will fire you.’ And I was like, ‘Actually, this is the best time to say I want to quit. I was like, ‘I'm going to sing.’ She was livid.”

Tems laughs about this conversation now, but in the moment, she remembers feeling so scared and unstable that she burst into tears. Even through that fear, she knew she was making the right decision: “I left the room shaking but I felt relieved, like ‘OK, now I’m starting my real life.’ ”

All those years since shaking in her boss’s office, Tems’ "real life" now revolves around the practice of pouring into her never-ending well of artistry. It’s a practice that’s paying off in full. The 28-year-old singer is an amplifier of Nigeria’s alté scene — a movement mashing up R&B, Afrobeats, dancehall and more. She’s helped usher in an African takeover of pop music thanks to her assist on Wizkid’s undeniable hit single, “Essence.” She’s a Grammy winner and an Oscar nominee and a multi-hyphenated producer, engineer and director who wields a sought-after pen for collaborators like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Drake. Her full-length debut album Born in the Wild, out now, immortalizes this ascension and what it's taken to get here.

For Tems, to be Born in the Wild means learning “to have tough skin and be comfortable in uncertainty.” She knows this feeling well. At the time of her 2018 resignation, the singer was already a trained vocalist who performed in choir as a child, but the soon-to-be soul star had yet to record her first song (“I was [at] zero”). And while the sound of West Africa is ruled by dancey Afrobeats, Tems grew up on Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Destiny’s Child, R&B divas who create huge, heart-stopping moments out of their songs. That’s what she was aiming for.

“Music is meant to make you feel something. And a lot of music now is for utility, it doesn't necessarily make you feel something,” she declares. “I really want to feel it in my chest! I want to feel sad, I want to feel happy, I want to feel motivated.”

When Tems struggled to find a producer early on who could match her feeling without pushing her into other genres like Afrobeats, she answered uncertainty with self-sufficiency. She learned to produce and engineer her music entirely herself by watching YouTube tutorials for on-the-spot direction: “Every time I stay true to myself, it just always goes right. It’s just always pure.”

Much like early tracks off her impressive EPs — 2020’s For Broken Ears and 2021’s If Orange Was a Place — Tems wrote, produced and engineered most of Born in the Wild herself. Even when she tried working with co-writers throughout the process, she gained the most clarity from her own freestyling, forging lessons out of the rapid changes in her life. Tems puts this resolution simply: “I felt like, for my first album, it should be me.”

Across 18 tracks, the R&B trailblazer’s epiphanies spring from stories of loss and personal growth. “Love Me Jeje,” the spontaneous result of a night out with her girls that reimagines a '90s Afrosoul classic, lands early in the track list and purposely flirts with Afropop, leaning into what Tems says was expected of her when she started making music.

She counters this bouncy dedication to Lagos with mid-tempo R&B heaters fit for a foggy walk around London — “Burning,” “Forever” and the highlight, “Unfortunate,” a send-off to an ex-lover that’s as seething as it is sweet. “It’s not even like I’m judging you because I’m not perfect,” she says of the ex in question. “But it’s great that you showed me you are this person so I can give you space, you need to grow. You need to get that growth going.”

The LP burns brightest when Tems leans into her highs and lows. On “Wickedest,” Tems sings, Yeah, I’m one that got the scene banging / And I go hard, that’s why they keep talking, a moment of assuming her position as a leader among her peers. This is a role she’s getting more comfortable with as more African acts hail her for opening the door in global markets. “I knew what I was doing was going to change something, but I just didn’t know how it would manifest,” she says of her work being a catalyst. On “Hold On,” one of the most poignant tracks on the offering, she sends a love letter to her younger self for making it through her darkest moments before that tipping point.

“It was night in my life, for so long, that I just thought it was never coming,” she remembers. “Things were always going wrong in my life from the moment I was born. You know, I was actually born in candlelight. Like, there was no electricity when my mom gave birth to me. Then my life did a 360 from that leap I took, from that one decision to quit my job… I think if anyone feels how I felt at the time, hold on.”

By delivering a debut on her own terms that soars far outside of the bounds of genre, Tems has found the wings she didn’t know she had.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.