Normani: DOPAMINE Album Review | Pitchfork

Whether they admit it or not, every former girl-group singer wants their solo debut to hit like “2003 Beyoncé performing ‘Crazy in Love.’” Four years ago, Normani came remarkably close with the sprightly R&B track “Motivation.” The single, and its Aaliyah-inspired follow-up “Wild Side,” capitalized on the pageantry that made her stand out in Fifth Harmony. After two unforgettable VMA performances—the handstand-into-a-split in 2019 and the steamy Janet Jackson homage in 2021—Normani laid low; both parents were battling cancer, and shifting management due to creative differences didn’t make anything easier. DOPAMINE, her highly anticipated debut-slash-comeback album, still can’t shake the anonymity of her ensemble days, but it lays the foundation for what Normani will be known for: her Southern roots and a voice as plush as a pair of fuzzy dice.

Rather than the bubbly pop of “Motivation,” which Normani has notably tried to distance herself from, DOPAMINE trades in the suave R&B of her childhood. “Lights On” is reminiscent of the sultry yet danceable croons of noughties Janet. “Insomnia,” co-written by none other than Brandy, could slot into the R&B star’s 2002 album Full Moon. The writing is solid and witty (“Don’t even address me unless you gon’ undress me”) but musically, the primary tasting notes are understated familiarity and reverence for the past. Normani’s smooth vocals are the only quality truly unique to her, and at times even that induces a highway hypnosis effect.

Normani is at her best when she is brash and animated, channeling sounds and flows from her Southern youth. She’s got ties to Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston all over the album: “Bling-bling-blaow” she sings of her platinum records and iced-out jewelry over a funky bassline on horn-laden opener “Big Boy,” complemented by Starrah’s Auto-Tune’d flexes. “Candy Paint” has the potential to eclipse the braggadocious aura of “Big Boy” but Normani’s laid-back flow becomes monotonous even when her tempo quickens. She leans heavily into her Texas roots on the album highlight “Still,” when she flips a testosterone-filled Mike Jones sample into a strip-club anthem for the ladies kicking up their feet and making it rain hundreds.

DOPAMINE is a solid reintroduction to Normani’s sultrier side that, unfortunately, currently exists in a similar conundrum as Dua Lipa post-Future Nostalgia: Her mysteriously cool it-girl persona is thrilling in three-minute doses, but after a couple of tracks with big hooks, you come across some filler. On DOPAMINE, the house-lite of “Take My Time,” the Kelly Rowland’s “Commander” dupe “Little Secrets,” and the James Blake-assisted “Tantrums” feel obligated to demonstrate versatility through genre experimentation. At times it feels like a solo artist searching for an identity through sound, not always through songwriting.

Though she has writing credits on a majority of the album, Normani’s solo songs often feel plucked from a communal pile. As an alum of one of the biggest American girl groups, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and a person who has had to confront mortality and celebrity from a young age, Normani’s story seems ripe for an album format—once she’s ready to tell it.

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