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Normani Priorizes Vibe Over Substance on ‘Dopamine’: Album Review

It’s been a very long, very arduous road for Normani to release her debut album “Dopamine.” On social media, the Nation — her anointed fandom name — pleaded for the record for so many years that when the former Fifth Harmony member finally announced it in February, she did so with a wink-nod, rolling it out with the accompanying website wheresthedamnalbum.com.

But in a career plagued so often by delays and false starts, the path from that announcement was characteristically uneven. At first, she didn’t give a release date. Then, a month later, she announced that the lead single, “1:59” featuring Gunna, would come in another month. Right up until release date, there was no music video, no tracklist reveal until the day before, no nothing.

All of this would be understandable if “Dopamine” presented Normani with her wings spread, fully formed as an artist, one who’s publicly grappled with the creative direction of her solo career. But instead, “Dopamine” feels like a first draft of figuring out who she is and what she wants to achieve. It’s a slight body of work, a largely taciturn R&B record incubated in its own velvet-lined world, far more concerned with vibe and texture than artistic definition. And in a musical landscape where confessional lyricism is often the key to connecting to broad audiences, “Dopamine” is a record that skims the surface, perfectly innocuous and complacent with paying lip service to the fans who so longingly pined for it.

At 28, Normani has proven time and again that she’s a tour de force, as a member of Fifth Harmony and with a string of features and one-off solo records. “Motivation,” her arrival single in 2019, was deliciously buoyant, a pop record infused with R&B underpinnings that suggested she was taking the baton from Beyoncé, or even Ariana Grande (who had a co-write on it).

But she rebuffed the song. “I didn’t want to release it, at all,” she told Zach Sang in 2021. “I was kind of forced to.” R&B disguised as pop music is nothing new to Normani — Fifth Harmony coasted on it, Camila Cabello runs and all — but she was determined to define her own sound outside of the expectations that “Motivation” and her career had set.

Thus, “Dopamine” was made with intention. After all, it took more than a half-decade to put out. But it mainly, and often frustratingly, adheres to the conventions of moody R&B music without a point of view. More glaringly, “Dopamine” contains stretches that blend into one another — some might argue, for instance, that the Mike Jones-sampling “Still” cozies up the smoky “All Yours” on purpose, but in sequence, it’s a dreamlike blur. And numerous pockets fall prey to the smear of “Dopamine,” the type of album meant to enjoy aimlessly with the windows down, thoughts begone.

And perhaps that’s the point. The molasses roll of “Distance” and patter of “Little Secrets” are familiar, but lack the dynamism that Normani so clearly inhabits. From a commercial standpoint, it’s confounding that “1:59” featuring Gunna was released as the first single, but in practice it makes sense. “1:59” is predicated solely on aesthetics, and in the context of the rest of “Dopamine,” it nestles in like a string of yarn sewn into a sleepy quilt.

It’s when she steps outside the fog of “Dopamine,” however rarely, that it shows glimpses of excellence. Opener “Big Boy” featuring Starrah is like an unreleased Neptunes record from the early aughts, pitting plucky bass pops against tinny horns and nods to OutKast. “Take My Time,” perhaps the album’s best song, is confected in a Pop&B mold, a sister companion to “Motivation” that makes you wonder why she ever disavowed it in the first place.

At her core, Normani is a talented singer, with a mercurial voice that operates within the confines of a few registers. She uses it to great effect, recalling the control of Brandy, and the layered vocals employed across the album add texture to the relatively straightforward beats. The vocals are prismatic on “Grip,” a song that echoes the pan flute of Timbaland and Magoo’s “All Y’all,” and haunt on “Lights On.” So it makes sense that Brandy herself shows up on the tail end of “Insomniac,” co-written by Victoria Monet, proffering a meeting of the minds that pays off — somewhat.

It’s in those fleeting moments that “Dopamine” plays its full hand. It’s impossible to live up to the hype of an album as anticipated as this, and in many ways, Normani was set up to fail — perhaps at her own hand, perhaps not — although she doesn’t, at least not completely.

“Dopamine” is an album that could have been a dissection of what she’s been through, or an understanding of how R&B can effectively meet pop on the playing field. But as it stands, it’s simply there, as pleasant as it can be, a token for fans who presaved the album and, more hopefully, a stepping stone to what could one day be her full potential.

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