Before Normani came onstage at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards in May, the show was kind of bland. During the intro to “Love Lies,” her duet partner had basic command of the stage and received a relatively muted reception from the crowd. And then, when the stage door lifted to reveal the outline of her silhouette, before she could even get out a note, the crowd, like true stans, went more than a little bit crazy. Normani has that kind of star power.
Rolling around on the floor in a tiny leotard, her dance moves were not only sultry, but executed with the killer precision and carefree attitude audiences have come to expect from the likes of Beyoncé. Somewhat controversially, Twitter has dubbed the 22-year-old Normani — the possible breakout star of her own massively successful girl group — the second coming of Bey. Normani is clearly pleased when I ask her about this during a recent sit-down at a studio in Brooklyn, even if she maintains a modicum of modesty: “It’s flattering but I definitely have room to grow and improve. I want to work for my spot. It’s not fair that I’m the next Beyoncé just yet. But I hope to become that.”
That night was an experiment, Normani was dipping a toe in the waters and checking to see if the world was ready for her as a solo artist. The answer was a resounding yes.
Until now, Nomani has had to walk a certain tightrope, balancing the force of her individual creativity against that of the megagroup that made her a household name, Fifth Harmony. She’s also shed her sanitized girl group image, no longer bound by the attractive-but-not-too-sexy constraint placed on her as a member of the group. There was a lot she couldn’t do and she’s excited to take on the challenge of standing alone. “I’m able to go to the studio now and write about ideas that actually mean something to me,” she says. “I am going back to the music that I grew up with that really inspires me. I get to pull from that and incorporate those sounds into this project. It’s not like somebody else sitting in a chair over at the label has a set idea as to who these girls are going to be and us having to go along with that.”
Now Normani is signed to RCA imprint Keep Cool, the new label started by Tunji Balogun, who helped engineer the careers of Bryson Tiller, SZA, and Khalid. “He had been watching me for so long because he wanted to be a part of who I would become as an artist,” she says. That vision of who she wants to become is distinctly Southern and also deeply collaborative. Normani knows how to work with people and the list of people lining up to work with her is insanely impressive. “I’m supposed to work with Missy Elliott really soon, which I’ll go to Atlanta to do. I think I have two weeks with her. I recently worked with Stargate. I’m supposed to be working with The Dream, Jude Demorest, London on da Track, DJ Mustard, Priscilla Renea, Ester Dean who is a legend, there’s a lot of people [involved],” she says.
A self-described “crazy little baby from the South,” Normani says she isn’t afraid of starting over artistically after Fifth Harmony — Normani and her family have already survived so much. In 2005, when she was just 9, Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans, her ancestral home, ceding to the water and eventually, to redevelopment. Like a lot of people displaced by the storm, her family resettled in Houston, the city she now calls home.
Although constantly on the move for recording, she is never far from home: her mother travels with her even if her teacup Yorkie and toy poodle can’t. She doesn't like to be away from Houston too long, she says, or she misses her pastor too much.Those roots will inform what she’s doing next musically, Normani says. “My Mom was raised in the same house in New Orleans that I was raised in as a little girl. I want to shed light on my truth,” she says.
Normani’s new sound is grown and sexy. The songs I hear from the project, all unnamed at this point, are dreamily produced: think airy sounds with lots of instrumentation. It’s classic R&B delivered with raspy vocal runs and with lots of plucky, bluesy sounding guitars and horns underneath. Her subject reflects the urgency and volatility of feeling that define your early twenties. She is braggadocious one moment, and then self conscious and brooding the next: “I’m a mess...I’m going to make it hard to be with me.” She traces the arc of her emotions back to the origin point. She’s is coming back to herself, learning how to be Normani again.
Hair by King Carter and make up by Grace Pae.