Tomi Thomas: Hopeless Romantic EP Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Tomi Thomas has come a long way from his beginnings in 2009 with the collective Loud On Sound (LOS), and then his debut solo EP – 2014’s Patience. Now, he’s back with another EP – and once more Thomas shows he’s one of Nigeria’s classiest and most accomplished acts.
Tomi Thomas Hopeless Romantic is a six-track masterclass in how to produce a quality, engaging record without seeming pretentious or over-wrought. It could be compared to what Protoje and In.Digg.Nation Collective have done for Reggae; that is, Thomas and the team have taken Afrobeats and redefined what the genre means – smashing up styles and influences to create a sound often difficult to box in (in a good way, of course).
Thomas told Pauzeradio that with Hopeless Romantic:
“The music from within will always transcend time and space. We went beyond on this project. We had to dig deep and search for the spark that will edify the universe”.
It should be noted that Tomi Thomas assisted with the mixing of the entire EP. This has paid dividends, as Hopeless Romantic as a whole project feels full of synergy across its dynamics, sound and overall timbre. No mean feat, given that each of the six tracks is from a different producer. But Hopeless Romantic delivers an entire vibe in full – and expertly so.
The EP opens with Love Me Now – and what an opening it is. Thomas, co-writer Akano Samuel Wisdom and super-producer Spax have created a gorgeous affair, which really would be better described as 21st century Neo Soul – combining elements of Reggae, Soul and traditional Afrobeats. The blending of genres is pure class. Its opening, with a gorgeous bass solo that runs an intricate, melody-driven riff up and down its register, reeks of Soul. Then enter an electric organ performing a combination of riffs and gently flowing chords. But don’t be fooled: because once Love Me Now gets going different elements come into play.
The gently skanking acoustic guitar is straight out of Reggae, but it’s embellished slightly with a more legato performance to elongate the rhythm out. Then, gently fluttering djembe (or similar), blocks and a shaker nod to the tracks African heart with winding, syncopated rhythms. That electric organ returns, with some staccato chords that feel like a half-time Reggae bubble rhythm with the vibrato wound up. And the bass now works across a drop-beat rhythm, missing the two and three. But the rest of the instrumentation is stripped back: a kick merely pronounces the first beat of each bar and tom toms briefly roll. Then, enters a stark bridge where the guitar’s skank and a selection of the percussion have been severely compressed with peaking and troughing decay, before being engineered back to normality. And then – the infectious arrangement begins over. Thomas is vocally as classy as the composition, running up and down his register with pointed urgency – invoking the sultry lyrics. And overall, Love Me Now is a superbly low-key yet inspired opening, showing the depth of talent from all involved along with respect for the notion that sometimes ‘less is more’.
Next, and the previously released title track is a gorgeous piece of soulful Afrobeats from Tomi Thomas and co-writer Hyacinth Obidi (who also mixed the track), with production from another hot Nigerian producer T.U.C. It’s filled with delicate yet syncopated percussion: from its fluttering djembe, to its snare working across a ‘twooo-and-three’ rhythmic motif (as do claps), and the occasional rolls of tin drums and cymbals combined with a tinkering, high-pitched kick. Its bass generally works around arpeggio chords, with the occasional burst of melodic intricacy. The timbre is rich and resonant, with a smoother, less plucked style. There’s two guitar lines (from Thomas and Abodunrin Opeyemi Jacob) – one running an elongated melody, the other performing tight arpeggio chords.
But then towards the end the electric guitar breaks out into full-on Rock-Soul, with a forthright, screeching solo, filled with bending and blue notes. It’s a wonderful surprise, and finishes off Hopeless Romantic perfectly. Then, Thomas’s vocal plays with the stuttering, syncopated percussive arrangement well. He starts off rhythmically fairly reserved, working down the lower end of his vocal register – before moving up, and up, and up again, bringing in more rhythmic intricacy before he reaches a wailing, impassioned crescendo high up his register running semiquavers like his life depended on it and taking the final chorus up an octave – before splitting his vocal line in two. It’s impressive, emotive and edgy – fitting the mournful, lonely lyrical content perfectly.
Again is another track Tomi Thomas previously blessed the world with. Co-writers with Thomas, Matthew Sean Allen and James Steed, also produced the track. It’s a curious arrangement, in a good way – featuring a host of musical devices. The standout one is the chord progressions, which on the chorus avoid the root entirely, working off the F major fourth and G major fifth. This creates a sense of motion and forward movement, and works very well. Then, the percussion is fairly light-touch throughout – using a combination of a stuttering snare (using dual techniques of on-skin and rim clicks), hi-hats running buzz rolls and a brooding, slightly distorted kick that beats like a fluttering heart. Again’s bass is smooth and unfussy for the most part, delivering a smoothness to juxtapose with the percussive intricacy. Thomas, Allen and Steed have also included an synth organ sound that works with the bass across chords to bring some calming fluidity to the track. But the chorus suddenly gains depth through the introduction of what sound like dampened strings (or possibly horns) that are low down their register to create a sudden feeling of depth with decay weaving in and out of them. Thomas then enters and smashes the chord progressions to bits – cleverly working around the tonic of the scale on the chorus just to add to the forward feeling (and creating a memorable melody to boot). He also builds the bridge into the second chorus well, increasing the rhythmic intensity and his dynamics. The combination of him and the music create a nervous yet progressive feel – much like the lyrics, discussing of that heart skipping a beat when you see ‘the one’ again. Extremely pleasing.
Gogo Dancer sees Hopeless Romantic move into smooth yet unusual, kind-of AfroDancehall territory – but with some gorgeous traditional elements included, courtesy of co-writer and producer Del B. It’s a fascinating composition that has been structured into several musical parts. The opening verse is full of musical tricks. The bass is crucial to the feel. Heavily distorted, it works around an aggravated rhythm that often pre-empts or misses the beat entirely. It’s a bold move, but it works well. A snare focuses purely on the second and fourth offbeat. Then, an electric organ runs stuttering, dampened chords. The overall arrangement feels unsettling, like something is brewing – which it is, in the bridge. The focuses on off and missed-beat syncopation continues, with the bass upping the ante and avoiding nearly every one, hitting mostly offs. But the entrance of lilting electric guitars signals a move forward, as they run a multi-layered melody.
Then, the chorus begins and Gogo Dancer starts to settle. Dominant, reverbed claps reassure the listener by heating the first beat of the bar. The bass reverts to a straighter melody, hitting the beats, and hi-hats enter the fray – arranged with modern Trap in mind – full of rapid-fire demisemiquavers and their accompanying buzz rolls. The guitar becomes more dominant, and is accompanied by some wonderful synth horns – loud, rasping and shrill (almost feeling a bit dystopian, 80s Synthwave) running responses to Thomas’s calls. But the chorus isn’t done with you yet – as it takes another further step of forward motion, as a heavily distorted and dirty kick joins the composition, hitting the one and the tight off before the two. The point of all this being? That Del B and Thomas have given a masterclass in how to musically build a track to a climax using complex rhythmic devices and instrumental layering. It really is inspired – as is Thomas’s vocal, which he has honed straight in to this construction, building the dynamics and intonation as the track progresses. Pure genius.
Next, and Waiting sees Thomas tread an ethereal AfroDancehall path, but one that takes a stop at Soul along the way. The track is co-written and produced by David Ibukunoluwa Owolabi and Jesse Oghenetejiri Akpoghene – better known as Oddio. Like Love Me Now, the track’s opening lulls you into a brief but false sense of Soul security, before the arrangement begins proper. One of the main drivers is the snare. It runs a Dancehall clave (that ‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x2 rhythm), and in doing so brings the genre’s wind but without the heaviness. This is juxtaposed by a busy kick, running a ‘oneeeeee-two-and-a’ rhythm – and the combination of these two with their opposite on and offbeat focuses creates a dizzying and impatient rhythmic feel, endemic of the lyrics and sitting at home neither in Afrobeats but not really Dancehall either – hence it feels more AfroDancehall, but without the obvious and usual percussive arrangement.
But Waiting’s bass is smoother, at first hitting beat one and the third off, extending that into the four, before settling into a busier rhythmic arrangement that pushes Waiting forward apace. The engineering is such though that the bass doesn’t overpower proceedings, giving space for the other instrumentation. An electric guitar line mimics the bass’s rhythmic motif with strung-out chords across a whining ‘high on the amp’s treble’ timbre. Then, a second guitar line runs a countermelody to Thomas’s main one, lower down its register – weaving in and out just in the background. Finally, Thomas’s vocal finishes this arrangement off well. Once more he delivers urgency to marry with the lyrics. His line has been engineered with some very well-placed reverb to add to the swimming musical arrangement – and the whole tracks feels wanting with just a touch of anticipatory frustration, too. Gorgeous.
The EP closes with Hurricane, featuring the legendary Buju Banton. Co-written by producer Genio Bambino (Oluwademilade Alabi), Banton and Derrus Rachel, it’s a thoroughly brooding and unsettling affair – not least because of its thunderstorm sample opening. It feels the most overly Dancehall track of Hopeless Romantic, with some genre sensibilities but also interjections of other styles throughout. That snare drives a Dancehall clave again and barely stops for breath from this. And the kick is prominent again, mimicking the snare’s clave but dropping the fifth beat of the motif and on the first bar doubling-up on the final beat. Then, Hurricane’s bass is pure 21st century Dancehall: grimy, gruff, deep and slightly distorted it is highly imposing, with a slight crackle reminiscent of thunder. Running at points a ‘oneeeeee-[two-three]-and-four’ rhythm, it does a wonderful yet slight glissando across the first note, invoking yet more meteorological mimeses.
But Hurricane refuses to box itself into Dancehall altogether. An acoustic guitar breezes around, delivering a combination of end-of-bar chords across the bass’s ‘and-four’, mixed with some gentle melodic riffs. Djembe tinker in the background, nodding to traditional Afrobeats. But Bambino drags the track back to Dancehall again, with some pointed samples and a sudden, thunderous break filled with klaxons, air raid sirens and more actual thunder. The whole composition is pure mimesis, echoing the heavy, intense feel of a brewing then breaking storm. Banton is furious and frantic across his solo section, and Thomas marries with this. Here he makes extremely good use of crescendo and decrescendo, invoking the feeling of the ebb and flow of wind. His response line to his main solo call is particularly impressive, working high up his vocal register. So, as a sum of its parts Hurricane is a strong closing to the EP: full of moodiness, evocative musical imagery and mesmerising mimesis. Powerful work.
Throughout, Tomi Thomas is vocally impressive. He has a strong and versatile range, easily working from a mid-baritone range to a high tenor with a crystalline quality across each. His timbre is slightly gruff and soulful, which marries with all the arrangement perfectly. He is skilled at maintaining complex rhythmic arrangements while not dropping any notes and maintaining melodic runs, too. His enunciation is perfect. But Thomas is also an intuitive performer – making good use of note extension and clipping to match the lyrics, varying his dynamics with controlled crescendo and decrescendo which again marries with the music and clever use of both horizontal and vertical embouchure to create different emotions on certain phrases. Lyrically, he has created a potent love story across the six tracks – from Love Me Now’s first flushes of attraction, to Hopeless Romantic’s sombre yet still hopeful search for true love, to Again’s desire to see more of that special one. Gogo Dancer tells us of the temptation to stray, but Wait cements the love for another perfectly. Yet in its closing, the EP appears to document the imploding of a relationship (but with a distinct nod to society and the planet more broadly). It’s all cleverly created, and coupled with the quality mixing and mastering means that the EP feels like a complete project with a beginning, middle and end.
Tomi Thomas Hopeless Romantic is a joy to behold. What really stands out is that each producer, along with the writers and Thomas, have opted for quality over quantity. The temptation to over-embellish the music with complex and precocious instrumentation has been avoided. Instead, an EP has been created that positively exudes class, substance and style. Thomas as an artist is really quite special, and Hopeless Romantic will go down as one of the stronger EP releases of 2021. Quite brilliant.
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Tomi Thomas Hopeless Romantic EP review by Mr Topple / Pauzeradio Pr Services (3rd June 2021).