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Tems Offers Little Variance On “Born In The Wild” [Album Review]

Tems is an Afrobeats superstar, that’s been a trailblazer operating by her own rules. Other Afrobeats crossover success stories usually start with immense success on the home scene that bleeds out. But after her breakout, Tems has circumvented that reality.

Tems 'Born In The Wild' cover art.
Tems ‘Born In The Wild’ cover art.

Her smash hit, Free Mind didn’t exactly take off in Nigeria before charting high on the Billboard Hot 100. And she didn’t need multiple crossover hit records, before notching co-signs from superstars like Drake or getting the gig to creatively craft the soundtrack the album for Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever alongside Rihanna. Breakouts in the mainstream these days are hardly organic and usually as a result of elaborate marketing campaigns and strategic placements, but Tems is probably the closest thing Afrobeats has had to an organic crossover artist.

Her pure delivery in English and affinity for R&B, also helped her thrive in the sense that unlike some of her counterparts she was getting perceived as a pure R&B artist and not just an ‘Afrobeats’ artist. Matter of fact, if not for her Afrocentric production, she would solely pass for an R&B artist. And ironically enough, it’s the fact that she’s too much of an R&B act that prevents this album from hitting the true heights it could.

Tems
Tems

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong in staying true to your sonic identity as an artist and being good at what you do, which applies to Tems. The dichotomy of this analogy is much deeper than that. The thing is, across an album an artist needs to offer variance. Whether or not they’re an R&B, Pop or Hip-Hop artist—variance is needed or else, the album would sound monotonous and exhausting. It’s the reason why other artists are featured. To bring a breath of fresh air and dynamism. But the artist themselves still need to carry their own weight and Tems struggles to. It also doesn’t help that this is an 18-track album with only 2 guest artists.

Let’s give practical examples. SZA’s ‘SOS‘ is critically and commercially acclaimed and already getting dubbed as one of the greatest R&B albums of modern times. Despite being an R&B artist, SZA is incredibly dynamic on the project. At times, she’s doing the pure R&B thing. Soulful riffs, emotionally charged writing, infective vocals. At times, she’s melodic rapping and some other times she just morphs into whatever the beat needs her to. Tems on the other hand isn’t very ambitious with her deliveries on this album and because of that, it treads a slippery slope of monotony.

There is a very thin line between monotony and great cohesion. The latter is achieved, as a result of great dynamism from the artist and producer. Let’s take for example, Nonso Amadi’s When It Blooms. A very tightly cohesive album that has trap, dancehall, EDM, Afropop and Highlife fused into it, featuring very dynamic deliveries from Nonso that matches each soundscape. The production on ‘BITW‘, on the other hand offers very little variance and also has minimalistic elements that limits Tems’ deliveries.

Whilst Tems might not be like BNXN, in the sense of being an R&B artist masquerading as a popstar because her branding has always been clear about her brand of music. Still, her debut albums suffers the same symptoms BNXN’s does. Now this is not a lack of ability. Tems’ previous EP’s, her first one especially are brilliant body of works that sees her testing her limits. But probably, the creative juice of her and Guiltybeatz has peaked and there is no new place they could challenge each other that hasn’t been breached. Either ways, whilst the music is still good in most part it doesn’t reach the heights it could.

The opening 5-track sequence—excluding the interlude—is where the album is at its best and ambitious, even though it might not hold the best songs. Born In The Wild is a soulful ballad, that’s a grand statement of Tems’ status and even ambitions. It isn’t a lot, but you can never go wrong with those sort of rich vocals, layered on string instruments. Burning segues in smoothly and it’s a good song, but it’s the quintessential Tems track and you’ll feel like you’ve heard a more superior version of it on Free Mind with tighter cadences and production.

Wickedest is a powerful, chest-thumping record that has Tems in her element, emphasizing the magnitude of her success and her state of mind. She’s paying little attention to the detractors and bigging up her success that’s been monumental to experience. The song samples Magic System’s Premier Gaou on a drill beat and this is probably the most dynamic we see Tems on this album.

Pre-released single, Love Me Jeje dials down the emotions back to emotional lane of loving and hopeful yearnings. Despite the minimalism approach to lyricism and production on this track, it still manages to capture a level of longing that can’t be attained with a maximalist approach. Still, the instrumentation on the production could have been more expansive.

It’s on Get It Right, that Tems’s limitation begin to rear its head. The song has some impressive writing and flows in her verses, but the chorus and her verse is quite the mouthful. Basically, there’s a lot of lines crammed into the chorus that doesn’t help its resonance and sing-along affinity. R&B does thrive on charged writing, but pop doesn’t work that way. Tems is unable to shed her R&B skin on this song and it doesn’t pay off like the way, Damages—her lockdown hit—did. The song had intentional writing like Get It Right, but the chorus was as simplistic and resonant as they came.

Ready has Tems professing the fact that she’s ready to let go of all her inhibitions and step into the light to embrace something different. At face value, it might sound like it has a love subtext in the sense of her assuring a lover she’s ready for the next level. But upon keen observation, she’s simply shedding her old skin and transforming into the star she knows she could be. It makes so much sense, when you take into consideration that she’s been a superstar that’s been reserved and reclusive in the past, in contrast to her more daring moves these days.

Afro-swing infused Gangsta continues in that same sentiment, except the angle she’s now approaching it from a demanding angle, iterating the need for the ones around her to feed into her energy and be in alignment. You’re either riding for her and being a gangsta or you’re not. Unlike the preceding tracks, the production on Unfortunate has a more gospel, nostalgic feel to its drum roll and production. She sounds jaded here, but not in the usual hopeless-and-lost way that’s common in R&B, but in a more self-realization-and-moving-on way, as she reflects that she’s fortunate she can recognize that the situation isn’t ideal.

Sometimes I want to strangle you, but I just sit and look” Tems admits on Boy O Boy doubling down on the sentiment on Unfortunate, but this time around, saying her final goodbyes before taking her leave. It’s a filler track that doesn’t exactly do anything different sonically on the album, or thematically either since it only builds on the topic of the preceding track.

It’s the desperation for me, from you” Tems defines her idea of undying love on Forever, as the sort of relentless devotion and yearning that’s so profound and palpable, that it could also pass as desperation. She feeds into this vice and starts reeling on the next song, Free Fall where she sings, “I had fallen too deep.” Cole raps from the helpless perspective of her love interest, stating his confusion about her hesitancy and gradual withdrawal. This sort of situation is perplexing and Cole conveys that perfectly. Unbeknownst to him though, his only crime was that his love interest had fallen too deep and lost herself. A big problem for someone who struggles to let go.

Turn Me Up takes a dark turn, with Tems confessing “You know I could be inside, but I just wanna take you for a ride” admitting to the fact that she’s now messing with her lover’s emotions and taking him for a ride. She’s now back in an emotional headspace where she isn’t helpless, and is reveling in it and lines like “maybe I should love you, but I really don’t want to” before emphasizing her one true need for him is to turn her up. Her vocal performance and aggression on the track, elevates the dancehall beat to new heights and makes this alongside Free Fall, the best songs on the album.

Tems recognizes the need for dynamism and raps on T-Unit and she finds some interesting pockets on the beat, but the writing is a bit unfocused and quite vague. You can sense it’s a subtle diss, packed with subliminals that would make a lot more sense if context was provided, but it isn’t and so we’re left trying to figure out the full picture.

On the last 2 tracks, Tems is bigging herself up again and celebrating her perseverance through the dark times. Except on You In My Face it’s from a declarative standpoint, as evidenced by the lines “We will go beyond the impossible.” Whilst on Hold On, it’s more words of encouragement written in a time capsule to her younger self and every other woman or girl, finding themselves in trying times to power through it. Hold On is the superior track because of its POV transcendence and the more emotive production.

Tems’ Born In The Wild is a powerful story of falling in love, fighting inhibitions to eventually letting go and being terrified at losing oneself too deep in emotions—that it spurs one to pick oneself from the pieces again. Along the way, it’s also loaded with subtle messages about discovery and identity, delivered through impressive writing that’s not on the nose with its topical narrative. However, through certain track sequences (7–11 especially) it has the tendency to sound labouring and monotonous, because of little variance from the production and Tems herself, although she does try. On future albums, she might want to work with a different producer for the bulk of the album and be more adventurous.

However, for a superstar Tems has quite the niche following that’s very devout and they would no doubt find a lot of songs on here that they would love. And whilst hit songs are pivotal to the success of albums these days and there might not be a lot of potential on here, as regard mainstream leaning songs—Tems has never operated by these rules and her career trajectory would definitely not be defined by that.

Final Verdict:

Sonic Cohesion & Unharried Transitions: 1.7/2
Expansive Production: 1/2
Songwriting: 1.5/2
Delivery: 1.2/2
Optimal Track Sequencing: 1.6/2

Total: 6.8/10

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