Normani – Dopamine

A poised, purposeful debut from a reluctant RnB star.

The first track you hear on Normani’s solo debut album encapsulates the deceptive charm at the heart of it. Over subliminal bass pangs, synthetic horns and an interlocking groove, ‘Big Boy’ is a sensorial mood setter. It’s not an emphatic introduction but it does usher in the slow reveal of ‘Dopamine’, heralding Normani’s arrival in precise, deliberate steps.

‘Dopamine’ would always be judged against its long, faltering road to completion, documented industriously by a fan-fuelled online engine which builds up stars just to watch them descend into the abyss. Evidently, it has been a long wait. Normani first teased her girl-group breakaway in 2019, with the bubble-gum performance piece ‘Motivation’, a song that wore past influences on its graffitied sleeves; a hit that’s quietly endured but one Normani has since distanced herself from. In the interim period, she released the Cardi B-assisted ‘Wild Side’: the final track on ‘Dopamine’ paid tribute to Timbaland’s twitchy, hyperkinetic drum programming, interpolating Aaliyah’s ‘One in a Million’. Once again it was reliant on past trends and signifiers, which fed into criticism of the singer as risk-averse and too sterile.

A few years on, the Houston singer is the most famous she’s ever been but still crippled by the weight of expectation and personal anguish. It’s been revealed both of Normani’s parents were cancer-stricken, and personnel changes within her management team played a part in delaying the release. ‘Dopamine’ is in essence a survivor’s account; a paean to playing the long game. Track number two, ‘Still’, captures that quiet resistance and hardened resolve, with Normani intoning her Houston roots over a glazed trap beat that screws and grinds to a halt in its closing moments.

Throughout its forty-minute runtime, ‘Dopamine’ pays tribute to ’00s-stylized RnB deep cuts, covertly repurposing and reworking the iconography, spirit and form of her spiritual predecessors – making just enough tweaks and modifications so as to not duplicate what came to define that era. Brandy’s progressive RnB rhapsody ‘Afrodisiac’ is an obvious reference on ‘Dopamine’, and her woozy harmonic presence on torch song, ‘Insomnia’, is a luminous testimony to the union and exhange between progenitors and their students.

Normani lets loose with innuendo-laced bedroom commands. ‘Lights On’ is the quiet storm sex pinnacle, where silky-smooth, low-slung vocals meet a litany of demands. It’s forthright but not without nuance as Normani moves between submissiveness and power player, echoed on the creaky, spacious canvas ‘Grip’, allowing the singer to assume default vocal mode: pliable, steady, cool, gently bending time as she glissades across and stretches her syllables.

Normani counters the momentum lapse spoiling recent marquee pop releases with two of the best tracks positioned towards the end: ‘Tantrums’, featuring a revived ‘Overgrown’-era James Blake vocal flip, puts the two in opposition – one crystalline, one weighty – echoing the volatile memory of a tumultuous love affair; ‘Little Secrets’ plays out the aftermath, the singer in contention with her old flame’s new conquest, her superior prowess confirmed over a shrill, deconstructed RnB-rock escapade.

Normani’s storytelling isn’t revelatory on ‘Dopamine’. She hews closely to the algorithm of RnB reveries; clipped, catchy soundbites that compress raw emotions in real time. ‘Dopamine’ isn’t a raw confessional either but a balanced, art-directed exercise. It’s a debut that hits the programmed sweet spot, conversant with contemporary trends and greater RnB and soul traditions. It’s the sound of Normani calibrating her affinity for homage whilst subtly establishing her own presence as a star to bank on.


Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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