Normani (Finally) Introduces Us to Her Sensual New World on Long-Awaited Debut LP ‘Dopamine’: Critic’s Take

Normani (Finally) Introduces Us to Her Sensual New World on Long-Awaited Debut LP ‘Dopamine’: Critic’s Take

Ever since Fifth Harmony’s Alice in Wonderland-inspired performance of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen” at the 2012 X Factor semifinals, Normani’s calm cool and subtle swagger have cut through the noise. Over the course of the decade that followed, that noise evolved — from the racism she faced (from inside and outside of her band) as the sole Black girl in Fifth Harmony to an audience that claimed to support her solo work while refusing to acknowledge the personal circumstances that caused her years of delays. 

Related

Victoria Monét & D’Mile Return to the Classroom in ‘Save the Music’ Amazon Documentary: Exclusive

06/18/2024

On the arduous seven-year road to her debut solo studio album, she’s periodically turned up the intensity with breakout moments — like that iconic “Love Lies” performance at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards or her star-cementing first solo music video, 2019’s Ariana Grande-penned “Motivation.” Nonetheless, the sensuous allure of Janet Jackson, Ciara and Aaliyah has always been the anchor of Normani’s artistic profile, and it’s that palette that she meticulously expands upon throughout Dopamine

Arriving on June 14, alongside an album photo shoot that pulls inspiration from the dominatrix-lite imagery of Jackson’s 2008 album Discipline, Dopamine finds Normani properly establishing her solo sound for the first time, embracing and amplifying the parts of her identity that were flattened in her output with Fifth Harmony. She paints fearless self-portraits of her sexuality across a soundscape that combines her love for ‘00s southern hip-hop with the intricate vocal stacks of Janet and Brandy, as well as the smooth rap-sung cadences of Aaliyah and Beyoncé

Relative to her peers, Normani’s social media presence is notably scant; her recent promo run in the months leading up to Dopamine is the most she’s spoken to the public since her “Wild Side” promo run back in 2021, which netted the Cardi B-assisted track a No. 14 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Instead of playing the forever-doomed game that is the blog circuit, Mani uses her music to issue a public service announcement about who exactly we’re dealing with on Dopamine.  

“Bling-bling-blow, that’s all them platinum hits/ Bling-bling-blow, that’s all that Billboard s—t,” she spits on the grimy Starrah-assited opener, “Big Boy.” Across a brooding bassline peppered with funky horns, Normani immediately sets up shop in the South, namechecking icons like André 3000, Big Boi and Pimp C, while boasting about being “cornbread-fed.” Fifth Harmony may have exclusively consisted of women of color, but Normani’s specific identity — ‘00 Southern Black culture – didn’t often get a chance to shine. With Dopamine, Normani makes it a point to center those parts of herself, reclaiming the past ten years she’s spent in an industry that would rather pillage the South for its sound than use their resources to amplify those artists.

That Southern flair courses through “Still,” on which Mani floats over an atmospheric flip of Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin’.” Lead single “1:59” and de facto ballad moment “Distance” help Dopamine flash forward from ‘00s influences to the late ‘10s by way of a melodic Gunna feature on the former and heavy trap drums on the latter. One of the album’s lyrical highlights, the Sevyn Streeter-penned “Distance,” addresses both an inconsistent lover and the tension that exists between the artist and their fans and the industry at large.  

“Distance” also happens to be the one record that might have benefitted from moving away from the dominant synthetic production to give her voice more room to fully display her vulnerable tone. Pre-release single “Candy Paint” is another track with which the vision is clear but the execution falters slightly: It’s a dancefloor-ready banger that doesn’t explode on its final chorus like it should. The missed opportunity doesn’t completely kneecap the song, but it does demonstrate how Dopamine occasionally sacrifices sonic variance for the sake of cohesion. 

In the same way “Candy Paint” recalls Ciara’s dance performance-minded hits, Dopamine’s most sensual moments recall the sexual liberation of ‘00s Janet Jackson. Standout “All Yours” revels in lush vocal stacks that build a world in which onomatopoeias of sexual gratification are the dominant language. “In your head like, mm-ah, mm-ah/ In your bed like, mm-ah, mm-ah,” she coos. “Lights On” continues down that sensual path, with Victoria Monét lending her Grammy-winning pen for sly double entendres like, “You’re f–kin’ with a star, give me rounds of applause.” With a seductive spoken interlude to boot, “Lights On” is the progeny of Janet Jackson from its very first second to the last.

In her quest to carve her own spin on these blueprints, Normani incorporates other sonic influences in a few surprising ways. There are flashes of Rated R-era Rihanna in the rollicking pop-rock of enrapturing album closer “Little Secrets” — “Wild Side” fells like more of an encore – and Grammy-winning cross-genre savant James Blake helps Mani shift her sound toward the chilly electronica of FKA twigs on the hauntingly gorgeous “Tantrums.”  

Nonetheless, it is Brandy’s signature ethereal approach to vocal stacks that reigns supreme throughout Dopamine — primarily on “Insomnia,” on which she shows up herself to supply some marvelous countermelodies and harmonies, giving her latest star pupil an official co-sign with her presence.  

At times, the wait for Normani’s debut solo studio album threatened to permanently dwarf whatevr pop culture impacct the LP itself would end up making, but Dopamine cuts through the noise by simply firming up the foundational elements of her artistry. There isn’t anything as Top 40-minded as “Motivation” or as pop-facing as “Dancing With a Stranger,” and it’s for the better. Dopamine heralds Normani as an artist with a fully realized sound.  

While the record often shies away from exploring Normani the Person – maybe she’s saving some of that for album No. 2 – it unequivocally solves the enigma of Normani the Artist, after years of singles that pointed in myriad different directions. A smooth, succinct listen that feels unique to its artist, Dopamine is both a win for Normani and a victory for the fans who have always believed her capable of crafting such a strong record.