Tiara Thomas

A quick click online yields this succinct definition of the word original: “Not dependent on other people’s ideas; inventive and unusual.” For those seeking the musical equivalent of that, you need look no further than Tiara Thomas.

Thomas first vaulted into national consciousness in 2013 when she co-wrote, co-produced and appeared on Wale’s hit single “Bad.” Now the multi-talented newcomer—singer, rapper, songwriter, musician, producer—brings that formidable skill set to the forefront on her Division 1/Interscope Geffen A&M debut album The Bad Influence. Leading the charge: the project’s feisty first single “One Night.”

Produced by Division 1 chief and Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer Rico Love, the feel-good “One Night” relates a story about woman who knows exactly what she wants. As Thomas sings and raps emphatically against a throbbing beat, “… All girls ain’t after your money / All girls ain’t even looking for love / And sometimes good girls get lonely / They want something money can’t buy / Don’t want the rest of your life / Just one night.”

“I’m an advocate for female liberation,” says Thomas of the song’s inspiration. “Guys can say whatever they want. I say what I want. I know a lot of women think about the things I’m talking about, yet maybe they’re too scared to say it themselves. But I’m all about speaking my mind.”

That down-to-earth honesty supplies the centrifugal force behind The Bad Influence. The title track—about being drawn to someone you know isn’t good for you—“is everyone’s story at some point in their life,” says Thomas. “I was in a very bad-influence vibe on this album. I based it around that whole concept: sex, relationships … and not always the latter in a positive light.”

The rest of the album naturally propels its way from contemporary R&B/hip-hop to alternative to pop and back without losing any of its arresting impact. Just when you think you have a handle on Thomas, as on the biographical “On Me,” she turns the tables with the engaging up-tempo “Ten” featuring Rico Love and the infectious “The Last Dance.” Aiding Thomas on her genre-hopping course are soulful, alluring vocals and a distinctive, intense rap flow that are lethal weapons on their own.

However, the last thing Thomas wants is to be pigeonholed—talent- or genre-wise. “I make a lot of sexy R&B music,” she explains, “but my style is to mix genres. Something that sounds urban but with a touch of pop; not straight-up R&B. It’s definitely a wider range than that.”

And as far as her vocal skills are concerned, Thomas quickly points out that she never calls herself a female rapper or a singer who also raps. “I’m an artist who happens to do a lot of different things.”

And that’s surprising in that the Indianapolis native, the youngest of three siblings, didn’t come from a musical family. The self-described “odd ball” grew up in the church, singing in the kids’ choir at six and later teaching herself to play guitar at 12. And while MTV was blocked at home, the Lauryn Hill-influenced Thomas did have a portable CD player and “friends who burned me CD’s.”  Penning raps and free-styling for classmates in third and fourth grade eventually led to talent shows in her middle and high school years.

Majoring in telecommunications at the only college she applied to, nearby Ball State University, Thomas was planning to work “at a radio station or MTV if I didn’t get a record deal in college.”  At her parents’ and friends’ urging, she began posting covers of songs by Drake and others on YouTube. But a spring break visit to Atlanta in her sophomore year proved to be Thomas’s ultimate career break.

At a club event hosted by Wale, she met the rapper and talked to him about her musical pursuits. A few months later, he flew her out to New York where she collaborated with him on his 2010 mixtape More About Nothing. Two years later, still balancing her school and work hustles, Thomas posted another YouTube cover from her dorm room that later evolved into her guest role on Wale’s platinum hit single “Bad.”

Thomas’ work caught the attention of songwriter/producer Love (Beyoncé, Usher), who made her the first signing on his Division 1 label. The pair’s debut collaboration was the 2013 EP Dear Sallie Mae, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Thomas’ college experiences.

In addition to Love, The Bad Influence features production by rising newcomer Swag and Thomas herself. She also wrote and recorded most of the album—in her PJ’s—in a little studio at her Miami home. “It was cool,” says Thomas. “The mic was set up maybe ten feet away from my bed and I just laid there listening to tracks.”

While that may sound quirky to some, it ultimately speaks volumes about Tiara Thomas and how she wants to define herself musically: an original who comes with no strings attached. “The only way I can do this and be happy is to make the music I want to do,” she declares. “Or else you’re just a puppet.”