“In order for me to make sense of what I want to say to the world, it has to make sense to myself — it starts with me,” says 25-year-old Normani, whose collaborations with Cardi B, Khalid and Sam Smith have made her a household name through- out the pop and R&B worlds. She is speaking of her highly anticipated untitled debut solo album, one that for three straight years, her label, RCA, and fans, have awaited — not exactly patiently (there were Reddit forums dedicated to the subject “Why is Normani taking so long?”).
Back in 2019, the expectation was that new music would follow the release of “Motivation,” a bouncing powerhouse of a lead single that conjured the confident playfulness of early Janet Jackson, Beyoncé and Rihanna — artists who already counted themselves as Normani fans. The vocals were sultry; her choreography, pristine.
How do you drop something so promising, fans wondered, and then not deliver more?
“I needed time to go through my process,” says Normani with a tinge of vulnerability. “I needed to keep asking questions.” But if E.L. Doctorow once said that writing is like driving a car at night — “You can see only as far as your headlights” — Normani chose instead to road-trip down the path of self-discovery with company. She kept the passenger seat filled and enrolled in the school of creative collaboration.
With Khalid, there was the slow-burning ballad “Love Lies,” an experience she says epitomized “trusting the process” and letting go of her perfectionist impulses. A few months later, when Smith happened to be recording in a nearby studio, Normani carpe-diemed his invitation to hop on “Dancing With a Stranger,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Radio Songs chart. There have since been collaborations with Megan Thee Stallion (“Diamonds”) and a cameo in Megan and Cardi B’s video for “WAP.” All the while, behind-the-scenes collaborators, like hitmaker Starrah, encouraged Normani to start taking the reins on her own production. “I love working with women,” Normani says. “There’s so much we have to offer and nothing we can’t do.”
And yet she is someone who has had reason to not always trust her female peers or the process of working with others. The New Orleans and Houston-raised artist’s formative years coincided with her breakthrough as a member of Fifth Harmony, the “X Factor”-packaged girl group that launched her onto the charts and simultaneously into trauma. She was the group’s only Black member, and the only one whose vocals were once left off a track entirely. When fans believed she had slighted fellow 5H member Camila Cabello, they hurled vicious, racist death threats at her. The environment wasn’t supportive, and by the end of it all, she was shell-shocked.
The journey to uncovering her sound and message, and weaving those things into a record that is due at the top of 2022, has required the making of nearly three albums’ worth of music. If Normani’s latest single “Wild Side,” featuring Cardi B, is any indication, it’s emblematic of an artist who clearly knows where she’s going. Seductive and Aaliyah-esque, the song — which hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart on Nov. 6 and has logged 100 million combined global streams to date — and its video are equal parts meticulous and expansive. They also capture the beauty in showing up for others. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes politics, and Cardi made it clear to everybody that she loved the record and believed in me wholeheartedly,” Normani explains. “The night before we released, I was obviously anxious, and Cardi just sat on the phone with me. She reminded me of who I am and told me that it was my time.”