Five Burning Questions: Normani’s ‘Wild Side,’ Featuring Cardi B, Debuts in Hot 100’s Top 15

Five Burning Questions: Normani’s ‘Wild Side,’ Featuring Cardi B, Debuts in Hot 100’s Top 15

Since Fifth Harmony went on indefinite hiatus three years ago, pop and R&B listeners have been rooting for 5H alum Normani to find her footing in solo stardom. Though she’s still yet to release her solo debut LP, she’s scored multiple Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits, via duets with Khalid (2018’s “Love Lies”) and Sam Smith (2019’s “Dancing With a Stranger”), as well as a solo top 40 hit in 2019 with “Motivation” — and now a top 15 debut on the Hot 100 with the Cardi B collab “Wild Side.”

The song, which informally nods to the beat to Aaliyah’s ’90s R&B classic “One in a Million,” bows at No. 14 on the Hot 100 this week, Normani’s highest debut on the chart outside of Fifth Harmony. Its first-week placement is helped in no small part by its much-buzzed-about music video, showcasing Normani’s dancing ability and star magnetism in a number of elaborately choreographed and cleverly staged sequences, as well as the appearance from Cardi, one of modern pop’s most reliable hitmakers.

Will the single eclipse the shadow of its stunning music video? And will it be the signature hit Normani needs to springboard to superstardom? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. No.14 is a new career-best for Normani in terms of a lead artist Hot 100 debut, though it’s still short of the eventual peak of her collabs “Dancing With a Stranger” and “Love Lies” (as well as Cardi’s own “Up” from earlier this year). On a scale from 1-10, how wildly excited would you be for this debut if you were Normani?  

Darlene Aderoju: I’d be on a level 10 of excitement and pride to see my work highlighted in the top 15, with hopes that in the coming weeks I can earn a top 10 peak position. Meanwhile, I would be incredibly wildly excited and thrilled to earn a career-best Billboard Hot 100 debut. In my opinion, earning spot no. 100 on the list is exciting — much less earning a top 15 debut — because simply appearing on the Hot 100 is a dream come true.

Lyndsey Havens: I’d say an 8.5. A No. 14 debut is her career best as the lead artist, and I imagine that carries more weight and feels more gratifying than any collaboration could. Plus, to debut just four spots shy of the top 10 at a time when BTS’ “Butter” reigns supreme, with “Permission To Dance” not far behind, is an important footnote. And for added perspective, regular chart topper and upcoming Lolla headliner Post Malone’s “Motley Crew” debuted at No. 13 just last week.

Jason Lipshutz: A 6 — excited, to be sure, if not wildly so. A No. 14 debut is impressive, especially considering that Normani’s last real single as a lead artist, 2019’s “Motivation” peaked at No. 33 on the Hot 100. As she gears up to release her long-awaited debut solo project, Normani needed something to generate interest, and the chart launch of “Wild Side” indicates that that mission was accomplished. A push into the top 10, or a prolonged run near the top of the chart, would be even better for Normani’s solo aspirations, but this is a strong start.

Andrew Unterberger: Around a 7 — it’s a triumph to some degree, especially because the video is such an immediate hit, and video stardom appears to be an emphasis with Normani in a way that’s increasingly rare in 2021. Would she have felt a little bit better with a top 10 debut, given the presence of Cardi and the huge lift from YouTube? Probably, but it’s still a win — and it’s got people excited about Normani again, which was certainly objective No. 1.

Christine Werthman: I’d be a solid 7 on the enthusiasm scale. A top-10 debut would’ve put me into 8-plus territory, but a career best is still exciting, and the potential remains for the song to continue to climb.

2. Much of the attention given to “Wild Side” upon its debut was for the high-level choreography, composition and performance of its music video — helping it top YouTube’s Weekly US chart. Do you think that the song will eventually come to be a hit outside of its popular video, or will fans remember it mostly (or at least most fondly) for the visual?   

Darlene Aderoju: Given the song has already debuted in the top 15 on the Hot 100, it’s technically already a hit. The music video has propelled the song into the ears of millions of music listeners who will likely continue to listen to the song and share it without the accompanying visual. I believe fans will most fondly remember the song itself because of its lift from Aaliyah’s “One in a Million,” whether the influence is officially acknowledged or not.   

Lyndsey Havens: While I will mostly remember the track because of its high-impact visual, that’s not what I keep returning to. Sure, I’ve watched the music video a handful of times, but I’ve streamed it countless more. For an artist like Normani, whose chorography is so caked into her artistry, I imagine this proven formula will persist with future releases. Just look to “WAP” as a great example of a song that’s visual is cemented in any viewer’s mind, yet continued to gain even after the shock value wore off.

Jason Lipshutz: While the “Wild Side” music video is flashy and immediately arresting, the single takes longer to unfurl its subtle pleasures — the onomatopoeia of the first verse, the sensual rhythms that coalesce around Normani’s voice, the “I wanna get WILD” hook. Normani’s latest is one of the sturdiest R&B singles of the year, and while that may or may not help “Wild Side” morph into a durable pop hit, at the very least the song’s quality more than justifies its big-budget visual.

Andrew Unterberger: I’m not sure if pop radio will take to “Wild Side” the way it did “Love Lies” and “Dancing With a Stranger” — uptempo is what’s in now, and this is the slowest and lowest jam of Normani’s solo career so far — but I could see it becoming an airplay monster on R&B radio, and it also seems ripe for dance challenges and other potentially viral TikTokery. The video will be largely inextricable from the song (by design), but I think the song still has room to grow on its own, or at least to endure.

Christine Werthman: The video made it pop, but “Wild Side” is a stellar song on its own. The looped, bird-like sounds that run throughout make it feel like you’re in the jungle, while the bass reverberates and swells around Normani’s sensuous vocal like some living, breathing organism haunting the deep end. There is a long list of writer and producer credits on the track, but the name that jumped out at me was Brittany Hazzard, aka Starrah, who also contributed to Rihanna’s “Needed Me.” “Wild Side” isn’t as commanding as that 2016 release, but it shares a seductive, magnetic vibe that’s clear with or without the video.

3. This is Cardi B’s first feature appearance on an official single this year — do you think it’s one of her stronger guest efforts, or does her presence feel more impactful as a co-sign from a proven solo superstar?   

Darlene Aderoju: I feel Cardi B’s appearance on this song is an assist to Normani’s track. Cardi’s feature attracts her massive fan base and audience to the single, but Cardi’s verse itself makes its impact with a simple, brief, vulgar description of sexual desires. They made a great decision to join forces on this track.

Lyndsey Havens: I think it’s a solid guest effort, and I appreciate hearing her flow at a slower pace, but not one of her strongest. More than anything, Cardi benefits the song most by stamping it — and Normani — with her coveted approval. She’s been tweeting up a storm of support for Normani, even going to bat against queerbaiting rumors by explaining that she needed to conceal her growing baby bump while filming the visual.

Jason Lipshutz: The more you listen to “Wild Side,” the more hilarious Cardi’s verse becomes: Normani’s performance conveys sexual yearning and the desire for physical touch, while the guest rap is… well, a little more forward in achieving that release, so to speak. Still, Cardi is such a magnetic force on a track that it’s hard not to be dazzled by her gift for innuendo, even if the rest of the song exists in a more suggestive tone. And you can’t really blame Normani for wanting one of the most successful artists of the past half-decade to hop in and work her magic, right?

Andrew Unterberger: I think it’s a stellar Cardi verse, with two obvious future-classic moments in her “that’s my d–k and I want it now” insistence and her boast about being able to “suck a watermelon through a straw.” The thing that makes the biggest impression on me about it, though, is how late (by today’s standards) in the song it shows up — following two full verses and choruses and a tab-popping “tsssss…. ahhhhhh” break, a full 2:33 in, after many 2021 pop hits would already be winding down if not already finished. You almost forget she’s on the track, making her appearance a pleasant surprise each time.

Christine Werthman: Cardi is only on this song for about 35 seconds, and though she has some eye-popping lines (see: “watermelon through a straw”), she’s not here to upstage Normani. I don’t think you could ever call Cardi subdued, but her delivery is a touch more understated than usual, suggesting that she’s here more in a co-sign capacity.

4. Interpolating a classic song from an artist as beloved as Aaliyah is always risky — do you think “Wild Side” justifies the (unofficial) lift of her “One in a Million” here? 

Darlene Aderoju: I think it would be nice to have an official acknowledgement that Aaliyah’s “One in a Million” was used and/or heavily inspired the track, so Timbaland – who produced the original – would receive his due respect for his work, and the late Aaliyah would receive the appropriate credit for her track. That being said, given that the song debuted as a top 15 Hot 100 hit, it’s safe to say many fans are pleased with this remake.   

Lyndsey Havens: I’m into the interpolation here, and do think “Wild Side” justifies it. It may have hit even harder — and been more justified — had the estate been approached and formally approved, but I can’t help but love the way “Wild Side” builds upon the classic framework of “One in a Million.”

Jason Lipshutz: From a lesser artist, the interpolation might have felt cheap — but from Normani, who’s seemingly spent years perfecting her vision of modern R&B and working relentlessly for her solo mainstream shot, the “One in a Million” usage makes a ton of sense, as both a tribute to someone who’s clearly influenced her artistry and a signaling of the musical lane she’s trying to carve out. It’s a tricky line to walk without pockets of the internet haranguing you for sullying a classic, but Normani, to her credit, pulls it off.

Andrew Unterberger: I think it works because it’s pulled off with a light touch — the musical reference is there, and clear if you’re familiar with Aaliyah’s original, but not so obvious or heavy-handed that you’d feel like you were missing something if you didn’t recognize it. It’s more of an invocation than a sample, and since Normani’s long proven that she’s done her homework with her pop and R&B history, it’s hard to imagine begrudging her deploying it here.

Christine Werthman: Yes, interpolate away, Normani. Although her team said she did not intend to emulate “One in a Million,” the fact that Aaliyah’s music — with that rich but minimal Timbaland production — could still subconsciously influence performers decades later is a testament to its greatness. I think my favorite thing about the (unofficial) nod is that while Aaliyah’s song featured what sounded like chirping crickets, Normani’s went with bird sounds. Shoutout to nature.

5. It’s been three years since Fifth Harmony went on indefinite hiatus and Normani’s solo career kicked off in earnest. “Wild Side” finally the song that she’ll be able to officially launch to stardom from — including her long-awaited debut album — or do you think it’ll end up another false start?   

Darlene Aderoju: With a song like “Wild Side,” Normani has really taken her career as a solo artist to the next level. Now that the song has proven successful with a strong debut, fans will be looking forward to her next release. Any solo artist that can attract as big a star as Cardi B on a collaboration has successfully launched their solo career already. At this point, many new listeners are learning of Normani as a standalone artist, completely unaware that she was once a member of a group.

Lyndsey Havens: I see “Wild Side” as a long-awaited chapter one after a series of preludes. I think with her highest charting debut to date, a co-sign from Cardi and a finely polished sound, look and vision in tow, “Wild Side” signals the start of the era we’ve all been waiting for.

Jason Lipshutz: That’s the big question, right? Normani is certainly capable of being involved with major hits, as “Love Lies” and “Dancing With a Stranger” proved, but regardless of how effectively “Wild Side” launches her next era from a commercial standpoint, so many of us just want that next era to get here already. Normani has confirmed that “Wild Side” is the lead single to her solo debut, which is a positive sign that a full-length is finally around the corner. For an artist this promising — who’s spent years crafting, and then awaiting, this moment — you just hope that it’s as fruitful as the flashes of stardom she’s already shown.

Andrew Unterberger: I hope so, since it’s been a while at this point, and she seems like she’s pretty all-in on “Wild Side.” Seems like now is the time, and you just hope Normani and her RCA label have the album together, and are aligned on a schedule and a rollout plan that they’ll be able to stick to, regardless of where else “Wild Side” ends up going from here.

Christine Werthman: I think this will get some new ears on her material and help people see her in a more adult light, which will help her on her path to solo stardom. If she builds on the momentum of “Wild Side” by releasing a more up-tempo track next, this could be it.

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