Tems’ ‘IF ORANGE WAS A PLACE’ is a strategic experiment [Pulse EP Review]

This isn’t music to be judged harshly - if it can be judged at all. It's music with a purpose; to be enjoyed and understood.


What do you do with a glorified rookie who has constantly overachieved? When it comes to Tems, that’s probably the million dollar question on everyone’s lips at RCA/Sony right now. When Tems launched onto the scene with ‘Mr. Rebel’ and ‘Looku Looku,’ people were blown away. She then released ‘Try Me,’ a great record, which became astronomical off TrueView.

She had just released ‘These Days,’ ‘Damages’ and her debut EP, For Broken Ears when she delivered a monstrous performance on Wizkid’s Made In Lagos. ‘Essence’ has since become a song of summer that might get multiple Grammy nominations. She has since worked with Justin Bieber, featured on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy track, ‘Fountains’ and gotten Adele to wax lyrical about her talent.

Kudos to RCA. They have pushed her with strategic intent and met some lucky breaks along the way. In terms of roll-out of an artist over the past two years, RCA’s work with Tems and Parkwood’s work with Chloe Bailey might take the cake, for strategy and intent.

Yet in the infancy of her career, where most people - including her and RCA - don’t know what she might be; and where she probably doesn’t even fully grasp the full concept of her being, she has three Billboard Hot 100 hits in under two months. All without a debut album.

Tems has probably shattered all the RCA’s projections. All the while, it feels like the label hasn’t figured out what to do with her just yet. In her class, also consisting of talent like Chloe Bailey, Jayla Darden, RIMON and more, her brand/potential is probably the most exciting, yet the most complex, not just because she’s crossing over from Nigeria.

Considering her formation as a Nigerian artist with R&B leaning, who has garnered three Billboard Hits that are strongly rooted in Afro-pop, Tems is probably too Pop-esque/Afro-pop-esque to simply be R&B like H.E.R, who has even been trying to evolve, over the past one year.

Considering her artistry, on-screen personality, voice type, vocal texture, technique and even her earliest sound, she is probably too R&B to simply be Pop-esque like Tiwa Savage. But she might be more Jorja Smith than H.E.R, whose brand is more like a vanishing spray. They share a similar body type, incredible good looks, seering vocals and calmer personalities. Tems is also not the most ebullient and personable person yet, even though she’s confident and articulate.

She is aloof. Hence, the Twitter Q&As, which could endear her to an audience. Her primary audience must also be an issue for the label; she has gathered some major buzz in the US with some strategic and lucky break, but she blew up first in Nigeria, as the contemporary heartthrob of new age Nigerian music.

She has also started to show more sexuality, to diversify her appeal. She’s a beautiful woman, and it’s starting to get more amplified - that’s branding. But what she could represent - music and brand-wise, over the next three years - is probably still a huge conundrum. She’s not white, so she doesn’t have the luxury of tweaking her brand with every album like Billie Eilish.

Do you take chances in the US by alienating her home front and rebranding her completely?

This would be hard and unreasonable. The home front, with the rising tide of Nigerian music - the steady but slow growth in new infrastructure, improving consumer behaviour, purchasing power and internet penetration across - would be hard to ignore for any major or imprint right now, as the battle for market share continues.

Especially with acts like Ayra Starr, pushing to breakthrough with aggression. Most labels will want a piece of the Nigerian pie, however small it is. Tems is also at the forefront of ‘Afrobeats to the world’ in the US, it would be unreasonable to rebrand her completely, alienating her home front - where she initially gained buzz - and what got her this American buzz for something entirely different.

Do you push her majorly as a Nigerian artist, with a deeply rooted Afro-pop sound, with R&B essence?

This too, could be risky. The real money for Nigerian artists is outside the country. A label that has invested so much must make its return on investment.

Kudos to RCA/Sony and Tems’ team, they have pushed her with intent. The best thing was not allowing her whole identity to revolve around ‘Essence.’ Luckily for them, Drake dropped ‘Fountains’ just as ‘Essence’ gathered some heat, to diversify the angles of Tems’ buzz. Smartly, they have also released her own music, to create a stream of awareness, that’s uniquely Tems’.


The truth is that Tems is somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios.

That’s why Tems’ new EP, IF ORANGE WAS A PLACE makes a ton of sense. More than the idea of creating a new stream of Tems’ consciousness in the minds of new fans, it’s also a needed experiment. Four records on the EP are produced by GuiltyBeatz while the other is produced by Jonah Christian. This is a deft blend of R&B and African pop music essence.

The placement of an R&B song like ‘Found’ featuring Brent Faiyaz, shows that the label understands that there is a chance for Tems to be an R&B princess. Instead of shutting it all out for Afro-pop infused music, they have gone for a mid-level, yet super-talented male R&B singer to open some R&B horizons for Tems. It's about controlled expectations and testing the American R&B market.

Ordinarily, Tems would have needed a more extended artist development cycle with a few more underground releases. But in line with taking advantage of her current buzz - without taking advantage of it, they have released an experimental EP - instead of an album.

On a good day, now would have been the perfect time to drop a Tems debut album. But the label probably knows that Tems isn’t just a Nigerian artist anymore. To take advantage of that potential, she needs a foot on each terrain because she would need more than two Billboard hits as a featured artist to have a sustained career. She would need an identity that fans in the US can recognize her for.

The tendency to try out new things in order to have a denser brand, is apparent in the ‘Nigerianism’ of ‘Crazy Things,’ on which Tems extensively sings in Pidgin and pronounced ‘happening’ as ‘appuning.’ It’s probably from the understanding that language of delivery will determine the level of an artist’s success in Nigeria.

It also reflects in the R&B-infused type of Afro-Fusion, which is heavy on Afro-pop percussion, but with slower BPMs, which forms the essence of ‘IF ORANGE WAS A PLACE.’

This way, she could take advantage of the rising tide of Afro-pop in the US, while retaining her R&B essence.

‘Vibe Out’ is probably the biggest sonic victory on this album. It’s R&B with an Afro-esque essence. It also has high potential as a single. It’s catchy and memorable, while being built on a pop culture friendly term. It deserves a nighttime video, with great storytelling. A nighttime video can distill a lot of things in Tems’ favour. The record can also be easily remixed by DJs or TikTokers.

The songwriting on this EP isn’t as good as that on ‘For Broken Ears,’ but it’s probably done intentionally, to produce the pop-esque appeal of this EP.

Final Thoughts

This EP will help RCA/Sony and Tems’ team to gauge fan responses enough to understand Tems’ next move, her brand and the direction for her upcoming debut album, which would then inform us of Tems’ identity in RCA’s eyes and what her brand is going to be.

Already, Tems will be her opportunity to be the new queen of African music, at least in the view of American music capitalism. And RCA knows that the chance must be taken. However, no pressure. They have been doing good thus far.

In terms of quality, the EP is a good listen. But maybe not as good as ‘For Broken Ears,’ for understandable reasons.

But this isn’t music to be judged harshly - if it can be judged at all. It’s just music to be enjoyed and understood. More importantly, it’s a perspective; a market research, if you will.


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