Album Review: Normani – DOPAMINE

[RCA; 2024]

Normani’s solo debut has been long coming. In a way she is a veteran; her journey as part of Fifth Harmony started over 10 years ago. While with them she was schooled in a particular brand of effortful, ever-sexy superstardom that carried over into her early work as a solo artist. Features on Khalid’s “Love Lies” and Sam Smith’s “Dancing With A Stranger”, along with her first moment of solo stardom “Motivation” all presented her as a high-energy performer who gave songs her all every time.

It was perhaps partially that eager energy that made it so jarring when she decided to lay low for about three years between her last properly promoted single and her album. It was hard to know exactly what to expect. The singles were dropped with little fanfare, there was no active promotion happening, Normani and her team seemed not to want to establish expectations for her upcoming record.

Yet surprisingly, blasé confidence turned out to be exactly the energy brought to DOPAMINE. Rather than the effortful pop of someone vying for the top spot, Normani opts for a suave, old-school brand of R&B that speaks to an artist unconcerned with proving herself. At her most intense, the singer never loses her cool. Tracks like “Big Boy” and “Candy Paint” bring in more intense beats, atop which Normani delivers the kind of flexing of her success and appeal that shows her connection to southern hip-hop as a girl from Atlanta whose life was split between New Orleans and Houston. She doesn’t shy away from injecting her braggadocious side into her R&B tunes either, with lush offerings like “Still” and “Grip” showing her self-advertising in a more melodic manner atop more subtle production. It all serves to further establish Normani as a true force of personality.

When she wants to, however, Normani delivers a version of R&B fully committed to the genre in a very classic way. “Lights On” makes particularly good use of her deep, sultry vocals, creating a kind of intimate R&B atmosphere that shows the singer has listened to her fair share of Janet Jackson. “1:59”, a song perhaps a little too subdued for its role as de facto lead single, works far better as a late album highlight where the chemistry between performer and instrumental is delightful. It seems after her last foray into pop stardom with “Wild Side” Normani would rather stay in her own lane and explore her most R&B forward side, which she certainly has the voice and the presence for. 

If Normani is so good at her most uncompromising, it’s a little unfortunate to see her choosing to occasionally compromise. “Take My Time” is a harmless but inessential venture into dance music that would perhaps be better suited for one of Calvin Harris’ less well-remembered albums. “Little Secrets” is an attempt at genre-bending that turns up the intensity of the beat and adds a backdrop of guitar, and Normani is no Megan Thee Stallion when the time comes to make it count. It comes across as an obligatory display of versatility that an artist with Normani’s background simply does not need.

Mishaps do not erase the fact that the potential is present though. The album’s centerpiece, “Insomnia”, has credits for Brandy and Victoria Monet, and is a mesmerizing display of what can be brought out of Normani’s performance skills when she has the right material. The production perfectly balances captivating flourishes with subtlety, and Normani delivers every lyric with passion, culminating in what is probably the album’s best hook, a combo of catchiness and drama that is truly admirable.

A bumpy six years in the making, DOPAMINE is not the achievement some would have wanted from Normani. What it is however is a display of taste, skill, and potential. It’s not a plea for superstardom, but at 28 and with over 10 years of experience in the industry, Normani is allowed to not be interested in that. What we have here is a record by a grown woman ready to carry the show on her back, and showing every component needed to eventually achieve a truly classic record. Normani stays one to watch, and for now her fans have some very solid material to enjoy until she decides to come back.