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Normani Finally Hits Her Sweet Spot on ‘Dopamine’

People have been clamoring and clowning about the whereabouts of Normani’s debut album for a pop-music eternity. The singer made that noise sound pretty fucking silly when she recently reflected that part of the delay was due to her parents’ simultaneous cancer diagnoses. Normani first announced that her solo debut was in the works in 2018, not long after the girl group she came to prominence in, Fifth Harmony, pumped its breaks for an indefinite hiatus. She went on to drop a few massive features and singles (“Love Lies,” with Khalid; “Dancing With a Stranger,” with Sam Smith; “Motivation” on her own), but as the album remained elusive, her “fans” grew antsy — and sometimes cruel. In 2022, she hit an X user who insisted she’d “gotten comfortable” and was “not HUNGRY anymore” with a STFU. Meanwhile, her mom’s breast cancer returned after 19 years of remission, and a year after she began treatment, Normani’s dad got cancer, too. “Fuck all of this,” she had thought to herself at the time. “This is bigger than the music. This is life or death.” 

Under the watch and encouragement of her family, Normani Kordei Hamilton has been on the road to stardom from the age of three via dance and pageantry.. At 16 years old, she was a wonder in Fifth Harmony, one of the last impactful pop collectives of its kind. She’s since turned heads as a solo artist with each single, though scant, since 2018. Now, in her own time (and under new management), she has shown and proven herself to be exactly who we thought she could be with Dopamine, an LP oozing sex, study, and precision. Anyone who’s seen her break the internet with complicated choreography to her own inescapable songs should not be surprised that she’s come so correct. 

Dopamine is Normani’s clearest artistic statement, written across a night sky like a constellation. She’s about dark moods, sensuality and danceability, simple frameworks made rich, and throwback hallmarks refreshed. Overseen by Starrah (secret weapon hip-hop songwriter behind songs like Rihanna’s “Needed Me” and Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage Remix”) and producer Tommy Brown (a disciple of modern R&B architect Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins), the album is obviously indebted to a seminal span of the 1990s and early 2000s when divas like Aaliyah, Janet Jackson, and Destiny’s Child yearned, harmonized, and cut a motherfucking rug. It’s also an ode to the specificity of her Southern Black womanhood, with brassy horns, chopped vocals, Mike Jones samples, references to Pimp C, OutKast, lean, and slabs, and a newly liberal use of the N-word. All this sounds more like creative reverence than a nostalgia ploy or pandering. She concisely makes her case for not so much a spot among the mavens of Black culture she pulls from, but her status as star pupil. There’s only 13 well-curated tracks here, sealed with the kiss of her 2021 hit with Cardi B, “Wild Side.”

Normani has earned more than a co-sign from the Vocal Bible of the era she molds herself after — she got Brandy Norwood’s collaboration. Normani recently told Rolling Stone that the Dopamine standout “Insomnia” was inspired by Brandy’s “A Capella (Something’s Missing),” and when Normani had the temerity to present the iconic singer with the song, Brandy was so impressed she added her own touches to it, ethereal ad-libs and layers and layers of “hmms” and “ahhs” that dance between stereo sides and make the track hearty, even in its quietest moments. It’s gorgeously co-written with Victoria Monét from a place of weakness at the whims of a relentless ex, and is made even more intense with pops of electric guitar. Brandy’s accompaniment eventually escalates to angelic heights — but only after she lets the young pop star take center stage for so much of the song. “Insomnia” feels like a coronation. 

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That Dopamine is nothing like Normani’s real solo arrival, 2019’s “Motivation” (via its elaborate video, itself an homage to peak 106 & Park) is by design. She had never wanted to release that bubblegum-sexy song, she’s said — and she still thinks it’s not that great — but she was forced to drop something new to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards soon after. She told podcast host Zach Sang that the slow and seductive “Wild Side” is the real her, the Normani her friends know. “Wild Side,” then, foreshadowed the pure libido of Dopamine, itself teased with an art-house video of Normani as phone-sex operator, lap dancer, and rocket rider. There’s no shame and little innuendo here, from “Lights On,” what she calls her “Janet moment,” all trickling rain and breathy promises to “make you come fast like a ‘98 sports car,” to “Grip,” which uses what sounds like an old G.I. Joe ad to liken her pussy to a kung-fu move. Your mind might wander to Ginuwine’s “Pony” and “So Anxious” if you listen hard enough to “Grip” and “1:59.” Then, “Candy Paint” is Normani’s high-octane, man-eating proclamation that she “need[s] a nigga to beat it up,” and warns that he might be yours. 

Its significant that there is only love, longing, flexing, and fucking on Dopamine. One might expect a grueling ballad or two given the pain and vitriol Normani has known, but if this sex kitten is who the once quiet, likely-tokened girl-group star has been throughout her young adulthood, it may have become important not to lose sight of that now. “When my parents got sick, I didn’t have the mental capacity to even try to be creative, but I pushed myself anyway,” Normani told Dazed. “I know it’s what got them through such a tough time — they needed to see me persevere and continue to move forward.” Her sensuality — which she equated to her femininity when she discussed “Wild Side” with Zach Sang in 2021 — takes on an even deeper meaning as she helped her mom reconcile with her own womanhood as breast cancer rocked her body. All over Dopamine, Normani owns her pleasure with the pride and confidence of the star she was always destined to be.

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