Normani Shows Us Who She Is on Her Debut Album, Dopamine

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She dropped the damn album—and it’s good. Former Fifth Harmony singer Normani returned to the music world today with her new record, Dopamine, her first full-length project since the girl group that propelled her to stardom dissolved in 2018.

The album defines Normani’s signature sound as rooted in R&B with pop and rock influences threaded throughout. In an impactful debut project, the star details her struggles with stardom, reveals intimate details about a “situationship,” and embraces sex in an empowering and playful way. It begs its listener, many times, to jump out of their chair and dance. While the record may have some lows, or even some skips, all-around it serves as a resounding statement that Normani is still that girl, the one whose confidence is both intimidating yet inspiring. She’s still the Normani who will, to save the performance, do the splits at the drop of a hat and deliver a clean vocal line.

This album comes after a flurry of personal challenges for Normani, whose parents both battled cancer in the years since her time with Fifth Harmony. Understandably, she took time to develop her sound due to various roadblocks. Her 2021 song “Wild Side” featuring Cardi B, which helped her nail down her current sound, closes out the album. She then preceded this release with two recent singles, “1:59” featuring Gunna and “Candy Paint.” “When you think of me, you think of movement,” she said to ELLE earlier this year about “Candy Paint.” “I feel like where we are musically, we can afford to pick it up a little bit, like tempo, energy, full-on eight counts.”

In a confident and cohesive debut album, Normani proves that it was in fact worth the wait. Below, two ELLE editors break down Dopamine.

preview for Normani Prank Calls Her Boyfriend, Ciara & Gunna | Phoning It In | ELLE

First Impressions

Erica Gonzales: I can’t believe we’re here now. Let’s start with that.

Samuel Maude: That’s a great place to start. We’ve been asking for a Normani album for so long. We’ve been very curious what it would sound like after she said didn’t love “Motivation.” After she released tracks like “Fair” and “Wild Side,” I’ve been very curious what the whole album would sound like. The lead singles “1:59” featuring Gunna and “Candy Paint” didn’t necessarily give me that impression, either.

There are songs on this that did make me want to stand up and dance. With “Take My Time,” I literally felt like I was having a heart attack because I was so into it.

Erica: Here’s the thing. We’re five years out of “Motivation,” and she has since evolved her sound since then, even though that was her biggest smash single. If you go into this expecting an album of “Motivation,” you’re going to be disappointed, because that’s not who she is anymore. That’s not what she wanted to make. I think there are some songs that carry a bit of that energy, like “Candy Paint.” She said in your ELLE interview that it’s the bridge between that and this album. But, it’s a solid R&B album. I think on my second listen, I was able to lean into the grooves a little bit more.

Sean Bankhead could do something so cool choreography-wise with certain rhythms on this album. There’s potential here for some dance moments. I could see girlies getting ready to certain songs or the moodier, subdued, seductive songs still having a sort of social hype around them, the way that people do for Summer Walker or Ari Lennox. I’m rooting for her.

Sam: I think we’re all rooting for her. I want her to succeed. I think she has the potential to. I am really curious what her fans want, because when I think of the Normani fans, I’m like, “Do they want this R&B world?” This Normani made it clear that she’s making this album for her and she’s making sure this album is her vision and what she wants. I’m just very curious if these fans that were Harmonizers or the people who loved “Motivation,” and then maybe weren’t the biggest fans of “Fair” and “Wild Side,” will be happy.

“Big Boy”

Erica: “Big Boy” feels very her, which I think she establishes really well in the first track. It’s a reintroduction to her, an homage to her Southern roots. She mentions Big Boi and Andre 3000. She’s from Atlanta, but grew up in New Orleans. There’s horns that reminded me of New Orleans jazz. This is steeped in her identity.

Sam: I love the line “cornbread fed.” I heard five tracks when I was writing the piece on her, and this was one of them. Normani, in our interview, actually asked me what her lead single should be. I said “Candy Paint” or “Big Boy.”

In our interview, too, she mentioned that when you think of her, you think of dancing. This song did make me want to get up and dance. It made me want to shake ass. I think it’s one of the strongest songs on the album and opens the album with a boom.

“Still” and “All Yours”

Sam: On “Still,” she was like, “I’m still around, I’m still here. You may have forgotten me, but I’m still that girl.” I think it really conveyed what she’s trying to do here. She’s still important. She’s still relevant. She’s still an artist people talk about. She has one of the most anticipated albums of all time. And the lyrics for this emphasize that, “So back then they didn’t want me / Now I’m hot, I can’t keep them off me / Lights flash, shaking ass with my girls, spending money,” and then, “Still sexy, still extra.” I thought that was smart.

Erica: I also liked what she was doing with her voice in parts of this album where she’s doing a percussive vocal. The oohs and aahs. On “All Yours,” I was honestly waiting for Ty Dolla $ign to come in. This is so his type of song.

Sam: I wrote down Uma Thurman because he kept going, “uma uma, uma uma” on “All Yours.”

Erica: Uma Thurman, film a TikTok set to this.

Sam: Uma Thurman, we’re your new social media managers.

References

Sam: I liked the rain at the beginning of “Lights On.” it reminded me of a Mariah Carey song, “Petals,” which I adore. It’s on my “Rainy Day in the Mountains” playlist. I’m not trying to compare her to other artists, but there are also moments where I was like, this sounds like The Weeknd to me. Maybe it’s just the signature R&B sounds, but there were a couple moments where I was like, this could be a Weeknd song.

Erica: That’s a good point. I mean, that is something she intentionally does when it comes to Aaliyah. Literally sampling “One in a Million.” I got a lot of Janet Jackson vibes on this album. She had Brandy lay down vocals for “Insomnia,” too. She’s paying homage to these icons of 2000s, ’90s R&B, Black women who paved the way for her.

“Take My Time”

Sam: I immediately heard it and transcended. It has this kind of soaring through space quality. It experiments with a little bit of a different sound in the middle of the album. It worked. I had to stop in the middle and go get water, because I literally just wanted to melt into the song. It felt like dopamine.

Erica: It’s not too late for song of the summer. I also wrote, “JANET!!!!”, four exclamation points.

“Insomnia”

Sam: On this song, it’s clear she was in a tough relationship and that some guy was leading her on and not fully in it with her. I thought this was an interesting line: “But when you decide to hit me / I’ll reminisce on all the history / And if it ain’t because of the whiskey / I wonder if you really miss me.” Those four lines felt very intimate to me. “And how your name triggers all my emotions / Into my eyes, into an ocean.”

Erica: Normani, are you okay?

Sam: This sounds like a very toxic relationship. It’s something that sounds very, very personal. Situationship vibes. Word of the year. So big on my word cloud personally, and then I feel like it’s big on the world’s word cloud. Everyone is in one, everyone is struggling.

Erica: Her incorporating electric guitar in this song and then bringing it back at the end was really cool because I think it added some depth, almost Prince-like.

“Distance”

Erica: I think this was one was deep. I liked the emotional build at the end, too.

Sam: I love the build here. I wish she kept this throughout the entire album in some ways.

Erica: More dynamics.

Sam: More dynamics. Normani sings a little off the voice, which means there’s a little more breathiness behind her. This is the vocal major in me coming out. I think that there are moments here where she sings a little more on, and I really love those moments.

normani dopamine

Hugo Comte

“Tantrums” featuring James Blake

Erica: This was really weird, but in a cool way. I’m a James Blake stan. That said, there’s a way to make weird work better. For example, when James Blake was on “Barefoot in the Park” with Rosalía, that was eerie, moody, and cool. It also worked in that album better, because it just went in so many different directions. Whereas here, it could read as a little incongruent. It was an interesting burst of weirdness, I liked it.

“Little Secrets”

Erica: I loved. I was gagged.

Sam: It’s just so good. I wrote down the word “cinematic.” I felt like I was in a movie, an action film. I could try doing my little stunts, doing my little jumps, and I felt like I was Spider-Man, Batman. No, actually, I felt like I was Catwoman.

Erica: I can see pyrotechnics in the stage performance. “Let me upstage your bitch”—she said that with her whole chest, and it sounded so good. It’s peak confidence. Peak “I’m that bitch.” I think she also said in one of her interviews that she considers herself an alpha female. This is that realized. Very don’t mess with me. I think also the composition of this, the fact that there’s some of the guitar again, that the beat sounds incredible, it was very well-crafted. Another potential song of the summer.

“Wild Side” featuring Cardi B

Erica: I was surprised that A, it was on album, and B, that it was the closer. I read her interview with The Cut and she said that was a song helped her define what the sound of this album would be. I understand it as a sonic anchor for the project, but since it came out so long ago, I was a little surprised. I could have also seen it as a bonus track, because I feel like it would end so strong on “Little Secrets”with the guitar outro. I feel like it was a grand finale.

Sam: I was just shocked, because it did come out so long ago. It reminded me of when Lizzo added “Truth Hurts” to the deluxe version of Cuz I Love You. The song got traction, she wanted it to be part of a larger project, and it put it in Grammy Awards consideration. She took one of her older singles and said, “This belongs here.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

I really want to get into Normani’s head and hear her thought process through all of this. I want to hear what her team, her management, everyone was telling her. I think this album makes sense, it’s the logical transition and feels like her, but I’m so curious how we got here.

Final Thoughts

Sam: We are at a moment where people want to see their pop stars dancing or putting on a show. I think of Tate McRae, who is an incredible dancer. Or, what Chappell Roan just did at Gov Ball, coming out of the apple. People want a spectacle. I think that’s why this could be Normani’s moment. We had this moment of more of the quiet pop stars who just sang, played their music and didn’t dance as much. But when Normani goes on tour, she will have an incredibly engaging show.

Erica: Yeah, that’s what I’m excited to see, too. Who is she now that the album’s out? What is the next stage, who is she as a performer? We’ve already gotten hints of that. We’ve only really seen her perform in awards shows.

Sam: I think it’s a good album. There are tracks that I could lose, but most of the tracks I want to keep. I really hope it has success. I could see some fans gripping onto the songs that I’m not as big of a fan of. I’m just so curious about what her fans and what the general public think of this one. Am I just lost in the Normani sauce?

Erica: Sam, throughout this whole album cycle, we’ve been asking each other, “What is a classic Normani sound?” Do you feel like you can answer that question now?

Sam: Actually, yes.

Erica: I think I can too. Mission accomplished.

Sam: The album’s cohesive. It defines her sound. It puts her in the R&B space, but not far from pop. Pop-adjacent. Good for her. That’s a win. Congratulations to her.

Erica: Congratulations, Normani. Now, release the visuals.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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