Normani’s ‘DOPAMINE’ blends experimentation and edge into smooth R&B gold


RCA Records.

Similar artists: Chlöe, Victoria Monét, Kehlani
Recommended tracks: “Tantrums,” “Lights On,” “Big Boy,” “Take My Time”

Six years ago, American girl group Fifth Harmony announced an indefinite hiatus after dominating the 2010’s with hit after hit. It has taken the group’s standout star, Normani, just as long to release a debut solo album. But a pandemic, rumored differences with her label RCA Records and more familial health issues than most could endure, Normani’s DOPAMINE has arrived at last. The singer’s debut album is a culmination of musical and cultural references set to smooth, pop-infused R&B that paints a multidimensional portrait of a star unafraid of sonic constraints and eager to redefine herself.  

Fresh off of Fifth Harmony’s disbanding in 2018, Normani joined forces with alt-pop singer Khalid for a contribution to the Love, Simon soundtrack, “Love Lies.” A parade of singles followed, including 2019’s “Motivation,” which at the time seemed to be the lead for her already highly anticipated debut. (“Motivation” would not make the cut for DOPAMINE.) Even earlier this year, when the singer posted the LP’s cover to Instagram in Feb. without any official release date, it was still unclear just when (and if) the album would become more than a daydream. But as Normani promised to fans over and over, DOPAMINE has finally seen the light of day.

For an artist who has been in the industry for years, but up until this point has had little music to show for it, the references spread across her debut LP — both musical and cultural — allow Normani to reintroduce herself to listeners and remind the public just who she is.

Album opener “Big Boy,” a collaboration with singer and rapper Starrah, is filled to the brim with a funky horn section and thrumming bass line. Normani declares her dominance early on, flexing that you, “Only ever see this type of sh*t in the movies / Only ever see this type of sh*t once in your life.” The song makes reference to her Southern roots through mentions of Southern rap duo Outkast’s André 3000 and Big Boi (not so coincidental considering the song’s title) and rapper-producer Pimp C. 

Where “Big Boy” illustrates the singer’s proud Southern roots, “Lights On” channels her inner Ms. Jackson for a steamy Velvet Rope-era jam complete with moaning and heavy breathing — not to mention background vocals from Victoria Monét. “There’s something to be said about / When things feel as good as they look / Or look as good as they feel,” Normani coos as thick bass and misty, cascading synth background her voice. “Still” once more declares herself as a, “Houston raised, NOLA born/R&B pop star, diva,” and possesses a R&B/hip-hop swagger reminiscent of Beyoncé’s “Flawless” and “I Been On.” Though the influences are palpable and the references are bountiful, Normani never sounds like a cheap copy of her R&B and pop foremothers — rather, she sounds like a well-studied alumni of Jackson and Knowles-Carter University. 

In the record’s strongest moments, Normani fires out bar after bar with ease, complimenting her spitfire delivery with euphoric harmonies and vocal runs. Tommy Brown, one of Ariana Grande’s frequent collaborators, lends his producing and writing skills to many of the tracks, resulting in a sweet blend of R&B and pop. “Take My Time’s” synth pitter patter makes for an undeniably steamy summer anthem, “Distance” takes the form of a quintessentially soulful R&B ballad and “Tantrums,” with James Blake spins an irresistible web of ominous synth and bass that defines it as an immediate standout. Even 2021’s “Wild Side,” with Cardi B sounds right at home among the 12 other tracks, despite its now tenured run in the singer’s catalog. Weak moments on the album are few and far between, only coming along sparingly on the overly rudimentary “Grip” and Fifth Harmony-sounding “Little Secrets.” But these tracks are far from being purely filler, they just pale in comparison to the brighter moments on the record. 

Across all 13 songs, Normani walks the line between classic contemporary pop star and R&B songstress without ever feeling the need to identify as wholly one or the other. She subverts the common misconception that Black female artists must fit into the box of being purely “R&B acts” through her seamless occupation of several genres. She arrives on DOPAMINE as unwilling to define herself as “this” or “that” kind of artist, and rather strives to inhabit her own distinctive space in the popular music landscape.

Keep up with Normani: Instagram // Facebook // YouTube // Twitter

Avery Heeringa
Avery Heeringa
Avery Heeringa recently graduated from Columbia College Chicago where he studied communication and journalism. He is passionate about all things entertainment and popular culture. When not writing about music, he can be found in the aisles at his local record store or discussing new album releases with his friends.

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