Normani, babygirl, what is you doin’?
Signed with RCA Records, former Fifth Harmony multihyphenate Normani has enough star power to blow today’s one-dimensional pop newcomers right out of the water. The problem: she has very little music to prove it. #FreeNormani (lol)
I’m obsessed with Normani Hamilton for a simple reason: she’s a young, black female performer who sparkles with more multidisciplinary star power than any other solo pop act I’ve seen rise to celebrity over the past half-decade or so. I am not only willing to die on this hill, but fight for it. So if you plan to argue with me about this — which I highly encourage you do, since I love a frenzied, yet friendly music debate — first do your homework and check out some of her strongest performances. They do not disappoint.
But, I already digress. To my discontent, there is no new Normani production to hype up or squabble about, and it seems like we’ll be bumping her sole solo single, “Motivation,” on infinite replay for another lifetime. However, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter/dancer did make a surprise appearance in the viral music video for Cardi B and Megan The Stallion’s new ‘n’ nasty collaboration, “WAP,” which dropped last Friday, August 7. The dirty rap cut, along with its accompanying visual, is just as lewd as its genre classification frames it to be, and Normani’s video cameo is comparatively PG-13. Nevertheless, her momentary presence — one characterized by houndstooth pleather booty shorts and plenty of ass-shaking and smizing — was beguiling enough to have entertainment media outlets and folks beyond her fanbase saying the word “Normani” for the first time in a hot minute.
Yes, the appearance reminded us all of her effortless, physical magnetism and astounding twerking competence. But what it failed to do was substantiate Normani’s obvious potential to become an international pop sensation — because that weighty title requires a catalog to support it. Normani’s discography is stagnant and sparse; it makes me very sad.
Sometime last month I tweeted a backhanded joke, chiding that her recent presence on social media aligned more with that of an influencer than recording artist or “pop perfectionist…”
I’m being critical because I care about this young woman. I see parts of myself in her. My black girl intuition — more specifically my brown/dark black girl intuition — tells me we’ve survived numerous parallel experiences, and the sheer fact that we’re of a similar age and complexion is enough to back this inkling. Plus, Normani herself has spoken at length about her own black woman experience, particularly as it pertained to her isolating time in Fifth Harmony from 2012 onward.
For six years, she endured cyberbullying from racists who wanted her lynched or assaulted, discriminatory attacks that her non-black bandmates failed at supporting her throughout. And adding to the racial tension was the fact that fellow 5H member Camila Cabello (whose fans sometimes targeted Normani, specifically) had a truly anti-black past herself: in 2018, the “Havana” singer finally owned up to her 14-year-old self’s favorite hobby of slanging the n-word and appropriating derogatory AAVE phrases.
Admittedly, this all happened a while back, and in response to her former bandmates’ collective missteps, Normani herself has made it clear that she’d rather move on. Yet, the Normani v. Camila “beef” is significant in Normani’s rise to stardom narrative — especially as the two songstresses are hands-down the most successful solo acts to blossom from the roots of Fifth Harmony.
I’m not a big fan of Cabello’s music (or her weirdo, hyper-public relationship with Sean Mendes, which triggers my gag reflex), but the numbers don’t lie. Four years after quitting Fifth Harmony, she’s had two platinum full-lengths, billions of streams, and three Grammy nominations. Two years after Fifth Harmony’s indefinite “hiatus,” Normani has a mere smattering of singles, almost all of which are collaborations with heavier hitters. As much as I hate to see it, Cabello is truly doing the damn thing with material that validates her skyrocket to success. On the contrary, it’s not quite clear what TF Normani is doing.
Sometime last month I tweeted a backhanded joke, chiding that her recent presence on social media aligned more with that of an influencer than recording artist or “pop perfectionist,” the label Rolling Stone gave her when she famously shared the cover of their March 2020 issue with SZA and Megan The Stallion. Indeed, along with her appearance in “WAP,” Normani is certainly up to lots of cutesy stuff: promoting herself as a Savage X Fenty ambassador; partnering with Urban Decay for their newest campaign; slaying head-to-toe in adidas Originals for a fresh collaboration with Finish Line. And with every new deal she partakes in, her beauteous face goes viral, earning her enough buzz to keep relevant.
By nature, these brand deals are obviously strategic — mainstream celebrity is as much about image as it is about the music — but they feel even more imperative for someone in Normani’s position, someone who, without such collabs and partnerships, would be entirely off the radar. What’s more irritating about it all is how self-aware she appears to be. Last week she even tweeted a photo of herself in immaculate box braids and a vintage-looking off-the-shoulder denim shirt, leaning onto a soundboard in a recording studio. The caption read, “told you I still make songs.” Where they at, though?
My conclusion: her label, RCA Records, is playing games. I’m a critic (apparently), not someone who’s truly in the thick of the industry’s bureaucracy, so I can’t pinpoint the exact rationalization for Normani’s lack of output. But I sure as hell can speculate. So, for months now, I’ve contemplated that her label team is carelessly neglecting her potential as an artist capable of more than just sitting pretty and singing a ditty — and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
“Normani is totally next level in a young Britney Spears sense: she’s a gifted vocalist and even better gymnast, the energetic essence of ’90s and Y2K vigor absent from today’s bracket of new pop artists.”
Over the last year or so, a lot of people have proposed that Normani is the next Beyoncé. I kindly call bullshit on this one. (Sure, my good sis is a magnificent performer, and could likely keep up just fine with any of Queen Bey’s dance breaks — but she doesn’t have the kind of awe-inspiring, inborn vocal ability that largely defines Beyoncé’s oeuvre.)
Yet, I do believe Normani is totally next level in a young Britney Spears sense: she’s a gifted vocalist and even better gymnast, the energetic essence of ’90s and Y2K vigor absent from today’s bracket of new pop artists. On a playing field where TikTok-ready movement overshadows the spirit of old-skool athleticism, the closest things to inspiring or challenging choreography in pop music right now are performances by the likes of Mabel or Dua Lipa, lovely chart-topping singers who can bop and dance just fine — but are not dancers. On the other hand, Normani’s talent is both sonic and matchlessly visual; she could, and should, be in a lane of her own.
Today — August 15, 2020 — marks one year since Normani released “Motivation,” her third biggest single behind one-off collaborations with Sam Smith (“Dancing with a Stanger”) and Khalid (on her debut post-5H single “Love Lies”). From critics to casual listeners, everyone was loving the track (which was penned by several notables, not limited to Ariana Grande and Max Martin), and even its music video became obsession-worthy as it paid homage to the iconic hip-hop and R&B aesthetics of the late ’90s and ’00s.
“Motivation” felt like the kickoff of a new Normani era, one in which that lead single would be followed by at least a few more anthems leading up to a long-anticipated LP release. Last September, she actually told Capital FM her 14-track debut album was already more than “halfway done” and would be out in 2020. But here we are in the final quarter of this doomed year, with nary another Normani single, let alone an album release date, in sight; and no, that forgettable collab she put out this spring with Meg for the Birds of Prey soundtrack does not count.
Call me naïve, but the delay in Normani giving us anything is particularly difficult to wrap my head around, mostly because she’s signed to a major label with unlimited resources, and quite plainly has a powerhouse of first-rate producers and writers already behind her. So, if an album was already half-finished one year ago, then where TF is it now? If Normani is such a capable artist in a modern landscape where more music directly equates to more money, then where, exactly, is any music?
Some will theorize that Normani herself is the problem; perhaps she’s indecisive about how she wants her glittering debut to manifest. Others may assume that any day now she’ll drop on us a surprise album. To both of those claims I chortle — Normani has no time to be picky, and she is certainly not a big enough deal to do anything untraditionally or unforeseen. Thus, with every passing day sans new music, I grow increasingly suspicious of RCA. Their signee is a trove of promise personified; and yet, with her, they barely push.
“Rather eerily, this whole situation reminds me of Tinashe’s own rise and widely publicized fall with her label — which also just so happened to be RCA.”
Enter: my second little spiel about racism, a necessary part of this essay y’all should have known was coming. However, for lightheartedness’ sake, I’ll keep it short. Whether people want to admit it or not, anti-blackness well and alive in the music industry. And it greatly affects every black person navigating any genre space outside what is considered “urban,” a.k.a. hip-hop or R&B, a.k.a. black music — a.k.a. the sequestered space in which white folk would rather colored artists remain. Normani, a purported “pop perfectionist,” falls right into this line of fire.
In the wake of America’s latest Black Lives Matter wave, the music business is making larger strides toward addressing its own anti-blackness in terms of artist promotion, development and recognition as it relates to genre — thanks in part to numerous influential artists speaking out on the ways in which label-defying black musicians are forcibly labeled as “urban” rather than pop for mysterious, unknown reasons. But these efforts are relatively new, and the music business is still very much systemically complicit in keeping black artists out of the major league of mainstream pop. In the case of Normani, also notable is the guaranteed presence of sexism wherever there is racism. Misogynoir is the suspect; she is the victim.
Rather eerily, this whole situation reminds me of Tinashe’s own rise and widely publicized fall with her record label — which also just so happened to be RCA. Today, the self-identifying “rhythmic pop” artist (also a black female singer-songwriter and formally trained dancer, much like Normani), has found both commercial and critical success as an independent musician, but it wasn’t a smoothly paved road for Nashe, who has openly discussed the way RCA “always low-key sabotaged” her “real art s**t.” It was this disparity in creative vision that she cited as the primary reason for severing ties with RCA after three poorly selling and largely under-promoted albums, although she’s more recently noted her personal struggle with feeling an “aversion to being labeled an R&B girl” due to the way the label prioritized the push of pop acts more than “urban” ones (although it should be noted that this genre-based discrimination isn’t exclusive to RCA).
All this is to say that I hope Tinashe’s narrative — one ultimately of artistic autonomy and marked success, but only after choking at the ties of RCA’s red-tape — doesn’t portend Normani’s. But history has a knack for repeating itself, and with every new day, as RCA lacks enough motivation to let a good sis rightfully shine, the story of Normani looks more and more like a tragedy.