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On Her Dopamine-Infused-Debut, Normani Finally Breaks Out

In her years following Fifth Harmony’s impending 2018 split — foreshadowed in original member Camila Cabello’s split a year or so prior — Normani Kordei, better known as the singular Normani, has faced an enormous amount of pressure. Sure, the Victoria Beckham’s, Leigh-Anne Pinnock’s, Nicole Scherzinger’s et al have battled with a demanding public closely awaiting solo endeavours post en-sembles, but events such as her BMI Janet Jackson tribute (aired the same year of her groups break up), A-list defence through figures like Nicki Minaj, and her debut single “Motivation”’s top 40 success in home-market, seemed to only heighten the scrutiny towards the New Orleans-native and her debut. 

As the months, then years developed, and a new decade descended on the world, anticipation quickly grew to frustration amongst Normani’s ‘Nation’ dubbed fandom, as well as wider audiences. Sure to remind the now soloist that she’d tweeted that she had her album title back in 2018, her rollout became comical fodder. One user even resorted to addressing Normani and her declaration every summer since. Follow ups such as the juggantha-visual masterpiece “Wild Side” — supported by iconic Aaliyah samples beneath an abundantly candid Cardi B — and successive single  “Fair” were ushered towards consumers across the pandemic. But both represented false starts as audiences were teased by starters, with no main course on the menu. 

Eventually, likely, in part, a retaliation to the demands, Normani opened up, revealing both of her parents' cancer diagnoses, quelling demands significantly mid-last year. Twelve months later, the singer's Dopamine dubbed debut has arrived, following a candidly comical rollout, led by Normani questioning herself in the project’s ‘wheresthedamnalbum’ URL. Simmering with bravado and confidence, the now-28-year old has seized her moment, seemingly ready to clean the slate and get straight ushering audiences — both old and now — into her stable. 

Traces of the 2024 Normani lie in her archives, but not where one may initially think to look. “Waves”, a single debuted on the cusp of a new decade, teased a darker and moodier Normani. As a liberal use of expletives follow her, the vocalist is candid in her confusion over a love interest. Accompanied by 6LACK, the pair reconcile their forbidden thoughts atop the gloom of elongated and apocalyptic Jonah Christian built synths. In a similar format, Dopamine’s playground is canvassed in a hue of sullen soundscapes. It’s a trait that comes to define the singer's inaugural release, Normani still finding innovative ways to incorporate familiar devices to add character to her formalities. “Still”’s infusion with Houston hip-hop and early trap through its repeated sample of Mike Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall's “Still Tippin',” tributes her post-Katrina home, her flair instantly solidified by doing so. “Houston raised, NOLA-born // R&B, pop-star diva, I’m” she declares only 20-seconds in. Placed in the project's first quarter, ‘Mani is ready to set the record straight — she’s not limited to a singular modus-operandi or genre discipline. Expectations have followed her in “Motivation”’s wake, for example, a single she recently revealed she didn’t favour initially, forced to infuse her southern roots in the accompanying visual instead. Here, Normani boasts without restraint.

Part of the charm of the multi-hyphenate’s new-found liberation descends onto audiences in Dopamine opener “Big Boy.” No longer tied to the expectations of a prim and proper quartet (or its original five-piece composition), solo ‘Mani, will say n*gga, will refer to herself in third person as “bad b*tch” and yes, will even go there with the f-word. Endearing in its delivery, Normani’s polished representation of self across social media over the years isn’t shattered here, it’s enhanced with depth. The listener finally hears and feels every inflection, every Outkast reference — yes, she grew up listening to Big Boi and Andre 3000, and calls that out — and every onomatopoeia. “Bling Bling Blaow” helps to silence any distraction, Nomani calls to be listened to, commanding every second of “Big Boy”’s three-minutes with a quirk one can quickly begin to root for, backed by notes of funk, diced across audacious trumpets and subdued basslines. Quickly evoking homage to a Scott Stortch or Bangladesh, Kuk Harrell and Tommy Brown engineer an urgent palette fitting for the artist’s arrival. Onomatopoeic references exist elsewhere across Normani’s debut era — across both “Wildside” and “Candy Paint” — acting as a sonic signature of sorts, manifesting itself for the better in the Houston-native.  

Further afield, beyond the theatrics and self-indulgent statement-runs, lie formative declarations of love, seduction and romance. A staple of both of Normani’s R&B and pop compositions, her approach to the subject acts as the closest displays of intimacy Normani is willing to portray in the studio. “All Yours,” an early-fan favourite, is tender in its interpretations, warm as it reaches its crescendo. Her runs here feel familiar, managing to merge Janet Jackson’s signature whispers, with the vocal dexterity and stacking that 'vocal bible' Brandy Norwood has become heralded for. The display of lineage is welcomed, and acts as a formative, full-circle call to Normani’s tribute performance for the former all those years ago. Brandy is also sure to pass-the-torch on wax, providing additional vocals to “Insomnia”. The R&B and rock-hybrid feels less personal in its lyrics; it focused instead on general scorn from a past-lover. Normani delivers a technically perfect performance, but one with less candour than in “All Yours”. Still, it forms a seminal, intergenerational embrace and proof that Normani the artist is more than studied, and intentional in how she wanted to perceive her vocal performance.

Normani’s atypical James Blake collaboration “Tantrums,” reveals signs of her future. Marked as one of her favourite songs pre-debut, the hybrid of electronic, R&B, and alt-pop, as well as its conservative use of lyrics allows Normani to play with her vocal delivery here, matching Blake’s widened approach. Sounding haunted in places, “Tantrums” is a welcomed addition to Dopamine, quickly standing out from other project-additions to which precede it. “Little Secrets” that follows, additionally adds weight to what future-Mani might sound like on her eventual sophomore. Drawing comparisons to a Miguel across "Wildheart," with its abundance of electric-guitar, “Little Secrets”, though superficial in subject matter — Normani’s comeuppance on her ex’s new fling — her impassioned runs pair perfectly with the carnivorous strings centering every one of her assertions. 

Dopamine’s biggest success is found in its erection of a fortified acoustic canon. Procured by Starrah and Tommy Brown in executive producers roles, the trio have built Normani signatures, leaning into her NOLA and Houston homes, infatuation with adorned spheres and disciplines within R&B, and vocal production and design. Normani’s debut album is memorable and laced with a cluster of favourable numbers, some quickly eclipsing former singles like “1:59” — irrespective of Gunna's charm. However, once the dust settles, Normani’s confidence and magnetism reconcile, one is left wanting to hear more of her experiences, eager on what she stands for on paper. Familial life, or even politics. For now, however, a more than sturdy foundation has been built, over time, she’ll likely use it to navigate all facets of herself, layer by layer.


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