A warm gut feeling rushes over you when you know you’ve set your sights on a winner. In this particular instance, that winner is Tiara Thomas.
The 23-year-old Indianapolis newcomer has already co-written, co-produced and co-starred on her first Billboard No. 1 urban mainstream single, Wale’s “Bad.” Since then, her multiple talents as a singer, songwriter, producer and MC have prompted Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer Rico Love to make Thomas the first signing on his Division1 label distributed by Interscope Geffen A&M. Coming soon: her first EP, Dear Sallie Mae.
IGA President John Janick describes Thomas as a “gifted and versatile artist.” Love, whose credits include Beyoncé and Usher, cites her “amazing talent as a phenomenal vocalist and one of the most creative songwriters I’ve heard in a long time.” For her part, Thomas says simply, “I just want to make an impact on people. I want to change music.”
After her arresting turn on “Bad,” the natural-born talent is well on her way. A sensual, thought-provoking tale about sexual liberation versus commitment, “Bad” lays out both the male and female sides of the issue. In a soulful and emotionally rich voice, Thomas perfectly captures the essence of the situation via the insightful and catchy hook she penned. “I’ll be your bad girl, I’ll prove it to you,” sings Thomas. “I can’t promise that I’ll be good to you / Cause I have some issues, I won’t commit / No, not having it … Yeah I’ll be good in bed but I’ll be bad to you.”
“Those lyrics just work,” declares Thomas of “Bad,” whose video has now racked up some 17 million YouTube views. “No females on the radio are saying anything like this. I just want everything I do to be as real as possible so people can relate to it. A song may not necessarily be about me, but it will be about a real topic, a true story.”
That creative spirit courses throughout Thomas’ illuminating EP Dear Sallie Mae. An oasis within a desert of conformity, the five-song set takes listeners well beyond the standard R&B/hip-hop fare as she throws up substantive discourses on everything from backstabbers (“Tell Me Something”) to popularity (“Popular”). Equally compelling as a rapper and singer, Thomas paints her stories using a refreshing palette of emphatic drum and bass beats, sensitive guitar riffs, engaging rhythms and frank, no-holds-barred lyrics—set off by her resonating voice.
On the edgy “Gang Signs,” Thomas effortlessly swaggers back and forth between rapping and singing as she imparts a guitar-accented manifesto (“No, I don’t want to die young”). The title track, meanwhile, tackles—of all things—college student loans. “Dear Sallie Mae … / She’s like the rudest bitch ever / I got bills to pay,” raps an intense Thomas in a slow drawl against a lean and mean bass n’ drum beat.
College, ironically, wasn’t part of Thomas’ game plan. The Indianapolis native intended to grind out new songs and pursue a hoped-for record deal. The self-described “super-huge school choir dork” began singing and rapping in elementary school. Then her dad bought her a guitar when she was 12.
“The first day I got the guitar, I wrote a song,” recalls Thomas, whose major influence is Lauryn Hill. “The more I I taught myself, the more I realized I could bring all three things together: singing, rapping and playing,”
Given the choice between college or the military, Thomas was accepted by the only school she applied to, nearby Ball State University. Switching from a fashion merchandising major to telecommunications—and still writing songs—she began putting her spin on tracks by Lil Wayne, Drake and Aaliyah and posting the videos on YouTube. But it was a fortuitous spring break trip to Atlanta during her sophomore year that turned the tide.
While hanging out at a club event hosted by Wale one evening, Thomas was prompted by a friend to take a picture with the rapper. Their ensuing conversation about music led to Thomas sending Wale several videos. A few months later he flew her out to New York to collaborate with him in the studio. Still a fulltime student at Ball State, Thomas began working on another YouTube cover in early 2012, refashioning the track “Some Cut” with new verses and a free-styled hook that later found its way onto Wale’s mixtape as “Bad.”
And now the Ball State telecommunications graduate and musical original is ready to pen the next chapter with Rico Love and Division1. “I didn’t want to go to college but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met Wale, wouldn’t have written ‘Bad’ … things happen for a reason,” says Thomas.
“What I’m bringing is so fresh and different,” she continues, “I don’t know how else to explain it, and I’d rather not. I just want people to hear it.”