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Normani Channeled Janet, Recruited Brandy, and Put ‘Absolutely Everything’ Into Her Album ‘Dopamine’

About four years ago, Normani seemed to disappear. The 28-year-old artist, who made it big as part of the girl group Fifth Harmony, went solo after the group disbanded in 2018, and found success with collaborations alongside Sam Smith and Khalid. She toured with Ariana Grande and riled up fans with her first single, the instantly catchy “Motivation.”

And then, her momentum slowed down. Normani would pop onto the scene briefly, drop a single or two, and then fade away again. She dealt with some ups and downs that kept her from releasing consistent music, but now she wants to get real about all of it: She got her heart broken several times, coped with the grueling cancer treatments of both of her parents, and dealt with pressure and scrutiny — ​​even racism — that followed her from her Fifth Harmony days. “I’ve lived so much life over five years, whether that be heartache, whether that be grief and losses, not feeling the most confident,” she tells Rolling Stone.

Still, she’s not stopped. She’s been working her way into the spotlight over the past couple of years with Cardi B and Calvin Harris collabs, features in two Savage X Fenty fashion shows, and even an upcoming debut in the Pedro Pascal-led film Freaky Tales. Most importantly, she’s finally finished her debut album: a slick pop and R&B LP called Dopamine, dropping June 14. Her moment is here.

“I’ve been so many versions of myself — still the same, still Normani, but in this body of work, I really hope everybody’s able to learn more about me,” she says.

How are you?
I want to answer this honestly. [Takes a deep breath.] I’m excited, but I’m a little anxious.

What are you anxious about?
Honestly, just the pressures of the wait and hoping that everybody loves this body of work as much as I love it. I’m still listening to things again for the hundredth time to make sure there are no extra harmonies that I want to put in a section, or a lyric that I might want to change. I want to know that I put in absolutely everything that I could, that I exhausted every possibility. 

Both of your parents were diagnosed with cancer while you made this album. How do you think that impacted the music?
Finding out my mom was diagnosed and then the following year finding out that my dad was diagnosed was one of the greatest challenges. I’m a human being, and the pain that I experience takes away from me being able to be creative and having the motivation to get up and be productive. That was something that I really struggled with. I’ve definitely been tested throughout this process, but there’s a beautiful side to it, too. I’ve given up a lot to be in the position I’m in.

Fans didn’t know about your parents’ illnesses until you talked about them. Do you feel like you’ve had to explain yourself — being away from the spotlight, delaying your music releases — to people?
Honestly, yeah, even if it’s unintentional. I just felt like I’ve [faced] so much resistance. It hasn’t always been fun.

That’s one thing that I promised myself: I want to be intentional in making myself happier throughout the process. I’m never going to get my first album back. I wish that I could look back and be like, “That was so fun.” Next time around, I’m just going to make the process more enjoyable.

Hugo Comte*

How have you grown since being in a girl group? Have you embraced those days, or is there some PTSD?
It’s a combination of things. I’m grateful for all of it, even the moments where I might’ve felt inadequate or less than. It definitely has a lot to do with why I am the way that I am. It definitely took a toll on my confidence. It’s just another testament to my resilience. Would I do some things differently or wish that some things were done differently? Of course, but I also don’t want to sit here and make it sound like it wasn’t part of my story. Lauren [Jauregui] just texted me today. 

Aw, what about?
Oh no, that’s sacred! That’s for me and her. It’s crazy we’re talking about everything and today she texted me. What a journey it’s been! 

I’ve always wondered if fans should change their relationship with Fifth Harmony’s music because of what you girls went through. Can people listen to the music and be OK with what you faced?
I totally understand. It just takes time. Every now and then I’ll go down memory lane. It starts off with me playing one song. It actually happened maybe a month or two ago. I was on FaceTime with my boyfriend and I played… It wasn’t “We Know.” It was one of our more R&B-leaning records. I just spiraled and started playing everything. He was like, “Are you going down memory lane?” I’m like, “Am I? Is that what’s happening?” I guess it was. But yeah, we were babies. We were so innocent and I think that is the struggle, to your point, of just us having to face reality under very unrealistic circumstances. I always say we did the very best we could with what we had, so that I’m proud of. 

There’s so much that I don’t even remember because I suppressed it. That’s just my way of protecting myself from having to deal with everything. But what I do remember is it wasn’t all bad. Like yeah, we struggled, but it was also really beautiful in what we accomplished together.

We’re in the solo Normani era now, though. You mentioned your boyfriend earlier. There are some lyrics on the album—
That are suggestive.

Yeah. You’re happy?
I’m happy. I am very happy. Definitely an answered prayer. I’ve experienced a lot with relationships. I’m a real lover girl. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and finding space where that’s reciprocated feels good. I like to see myself happy. I really do. He definitely inspired a few [songs].

When “Wild Side” came out, Cardi B posted a Voice Note on Twitter hyping you up, saying she wanted you to be confident. Did you need a little bit of a push then?
Absolutely, especially from my peers who I respect. I’m such a girl’s girl. It’s why I always wanted to be in a group. I just love women so much. She’s always been supportive of me, really from the very beginning, even when I was in the group.

Brandy’s vocals are also featured on the album.
There’s a record called “A Capella (Something’s Missing)” by her [from 2008], and I went in with that inspiration with [producers] Stargate. I was like, “I want to capture this feeling.” And that’s exactly what we did. And I was like, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if she added harmonies and just different textures?” That’s really what I was going for. She loved the song. She ended up being so down and jumped on it. I have a record with Brandy! It was crazy.

How would you describe the sound on Dopamine?
I naturally gravitate to darker-sounding things from a sonic perspective, something that feels like it has bite and grit and edginess to it. I always just like being left of center. At one point, I was like, “Listen, everything can’t sound dark. We want to take everybody on a ride. We need to add some color.” I love Missy Elliott so much, Timbaland production. I like unique things that haven’t necessarily really been heard, so that’s also why production is my favorite part of the process. I’m honestly already thinking about what I want the show to look like. I’m excited to perform “Lights On.” That’s my Janet moment.

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You reference Janet Jackson. You got Brandy on your album. You get to channel your inspirations.
They’re literally the reason why I do what I do and why I’m able to be in the position that I am in: Black women. They redefined the standard of beauty, but also just the standard in music. I feel like Brandy and Janet have really been disruptive in their own ways. I love the album Discipline by Janet.

What do you hope people learn about Normani from this album?
That I’m fucking strong despite everything that I’ve endured. It’s a testament to my strength and my resilience and my discipline. I’m a lot more sure of myself, a lot more comfortable. I’ve done a really good job at navigating and getting back to who I am and recognizing the beauty. I’m trusting myself a lot more.

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