Normani review, Dopamine: Fifth Harmony star’s long-awaited debut is sexy but too sleepy

Normani’s debut album, Dopamine, offers glimpses of brilliance amid a sea of lethargic grooves (Marcus Cooper)
Normani’s debut album, Dopamine, offers glimpses of brilliance amid a sea of lethargic grooves (Marcus Cooper)

When Normani Kordei Hamilton teased her debut album back in 2019, no one could’ve guessed that it’d take her half a decade to make good on the promise. That same year, the former Fifth Harmony star had dropped her summery, horn-blaring debut single “Motivation”, leaving fans certain that her status as solo pop icon was all but secured. Her girl group days behind her after a tumultuous six-year run, the Atlanta-born, New Orleans and Houston-raised singer was now free to shine on her own. She even had the backing of her pal Ariana Grande.

Fans will know what actually transpired: years went by, out came occasional singles... but no sign of an album. Privately, Normani was carrying the weight of both parents’ cancer diagnoses (and subsequent recoveries), as well as navigating her move from pop to a more R&B-dominant sound à la Aaliyah. As much as supporters fought Normani’s corner against online trolls mocking her leisurely rollout, many secretly worried that the album was dead in the water. Now, straddling an upward-launching rocket on the cover, Normani has finally released Dopamine, a 13-track dose of sultriness that shows glimpses of brilliance amid a sea of lethargic grooves.

“Big Boy” is a promising start, with playful boasts from the singer about the “bling bling blaow” of her platinum hits and a shoutout to Outkast and her Atlanta roots. Over a funky bassline, she sings that she “used to bang that Andre and that Big Boi”. Normani oozes cool at all times, declaring herself “still sexy, still extra” on “Still” – a track buoyed by a grimy, chopped ’n’ screwed sample from Houston rapper Mike Jones. Normani’s laidback delivery over the Southern rap beat is a treat: “Back then, they didn’t want me/ Now I’m hot, can’t keep ’em off me.”

The musician dips into a dance sound on “Take My Time”, while the hypnotic “Insomnia” sees her feather-light vocals splintered into angelic layers. It’s all very seductive – a ready-made mood-setter for date night – but as pleasurable as the general sound of this album is, it feels regrettably anti-climactic, not least because of how long fans have waited. Few tracks are memorable or catchy enough to stick around long after pressing pause.

Still, there’s a late highlight in “Tantrums” – her moody, mid-tempo duet with James Blake. “You’re nobody, you’re just somebody I used to f*** from time to time,” they tell each other over a sexy, thumping bassline. Seductive album-closer “Wild Side” featuring Cardi B may date back to 2021, but three years later, the casually confident track still holds up as a showcase for Normani at her very best. It’s frustrating, though, this final track recalling the sparkling punch that her music is capable of.

It’s debatable whether the years of anticipation have been worth it. No doubt the album will satisfy lovers of understated soul, but the hangers-on from Normani’s pop days will take more convincing. Either way, after so long a wait, you might hope for a bigger dopamine hit than this.