Normani has been answering questions with the nimble diplomacy of a former pageant contestant -- or maybe, more accurately, like a media-trained former member of the most popular girl group of the 2010s. (She’s both.) But finally, something has her stumped. I’ve asked her to choose: If she were a member of Destiny’s Child, which one would she be?
“I can’t decide!” she groans, flopping on the table in an exasperated gesture borrowed from teenage years.
As she sits back up, her hands float to the edges of her hair, pulled into a topknot more impeccable than it needs to be given her otherwise low-key look (black jeans, oversized hoodie, no makeup). She smooths back invisible flyaways. “Can’t I choose more than one?” she pleads. We’re sitting at a tourist-jammed French Quarter restaurant in New Orleans, where she grew up and has been visiting often, working on her forthcoming first solo album and soaking up inspiration from the city. Today, she’s feeling inspired by food -- specifically, her grandmother’s gumbo. We’re killing time before heading to a nearby cooking class where she can learn to make the local classic. But first, she’s got this decision to make: Is she a Kelly Rowland or a Beyoncé? “That’s not fair!” she says, when I insist that no, she can’t choose both. “This is terrible.”
Beyoncé is Beyoncé, she figures, and Normani stans. She whips out her iPhone to show me two of the many fan accounts she follows, @BeySlayy and @Rumiyonce. But “I see myself in Kelly,” she counters. “She’s killing it for brown girls. She carries herself gracefully, and ‘Motivation’ -- girl, that was the prime!” Finally she decides: Normani is a Kelly Rowland -- not necessarily the obvious star, but a confident, formidable singer who found her brand and stuck to it.
For Normani, this is not just a trivial exercise: At 22, she has already spent over half a decade trying to figure out who she is within a musical group. In 2012, when she was only 15, she reluctantly auditioned for The X Factor with her mother’s encouragement. She sang her last-choice song, “Chain of Fools,” and surprised everyone with a bigger voice and ballsier stage presence than foretold by her ASMR-ready purr of a speaking voice. She became Normani of Fifth Harmony, one part of a synchronized, gyrating whole.
A spot in the group brought all the spoils of pop stardom, but it also came with a set of defining qualities -- ones Normani didn’t always agree with. As she puts it today, “The Normani” is the one who “has it together” and, even more generically, “the dancer” -- a reputation she’s ready to leave behind, despite coming in third place on Dancing With the Stars in 2017.
Within the confines of the group, Normani wasn’t the one to immediately catch the audience’s eye. It was easy to overlook her slow-burning, thoughtful charisma, and she sensed it, too. “It was like, ‘Hey, I’m also here, and I’m really good at what I do. I work just as hard. I feel like I have to work 10 times harder just to prove to everybody that I also deserve to be here,’” she says. You can see that in any 5H performance: Normani pops her hips with more thrust, whips her hair with more centrifugal force and attacks her vocal runs with more ferocity, determined to stand out, even if she couldn’t break out.
When Fifth Harmony unraveled -- soldiering on as a foursome following Camila Cabello’s departure in December 2016, then announcing an indefinite hiatus last March -- Normani was ready. In April, she became the first artist signed to Keep Cool, a new imprint co-founded by RCA executive vp A&R Tunji Balogun. “This was always the goal,” says Normani. “For us to all be able to go out, create, pursue our own solo endeavors, which is what we had been trying to pursue since we were babies in diapers. The idea was always to be solo.”
The endgame has become reality, but with creative freedom and recognition at last within reach, she faces a new challenge: how to define herself, not only as one-quarter of Fifth Harmony, but as a young, black woman in pop music today. So far, her bandmates have taken divergent paths: Ally Brooke wrote a vaguely inspirational memoir; Dinah Jane released a solo single late last year, though it didn’t make much of a dent in the charts; Lauren Jauregui (who’ll also release a solo album in 2019) has become an outspoken political voice for the Teen Vogue set; and Cabello has found Grammy-nominated success by melding her Cuban roots with her pop background.
For girl- and boy-group alums, going solo is now a little easier than it was in the Destiny’s Child days: A flush industry will more readily take a chance on wannabe breakouts, who can market-test their brands on social media. And as the year of her album release begins, Normani has what seems like the ideal foundation for carving out her own lane. She’s got a handful of well-received singles with prominent collaborators -- including one, “Love Lies” with Khalid, that dominated radio and the charts and eventually reached the top 10 of the Hot 100; a spot opening for Ariana Grande’s Sweetener world tour; and, for the first time in her career, a sense of what she can accomplish. “I’m actually capable and strong enough to do this on my own,” she says. “Not as Normani in the entity of Fifth Harmony, but as someone who is a totally separate and different person: Normani.” Now she just needs to figure out exactly what being Normani means.
"Saddle up, cowgirls! It’s time to cook!” A silver-goateed instructor who goes by Chef Joe instructs us to put on our aprons. We’re cooking a three-course, non-Seamless-assisted meal, and Normani looks somewhat intimidated. “If I’m bad at this, don’t put it in the article,” she says with a self-conscious laugh.
Normani’s furious run of performances and studio sessions has finally slowed to a speed-walk, giving her time to hang out in New Orleans and spend the holidays in Houston. Hurricane Katrina forced her family to relocate to Texas when Normani was 9, and she still recalls packing up the car right before the storm hit, tearfully leaving behind her three best friends, and living in a motel before starting a new life.
“I remember my mom asking, when we were in traffic, ‘Do you want to go to Dallas or do you want to go to Houston?’” They had family in Dallas, but then Normani remembered something. “I was like, ‘Isn’t Beyoncé from Houston?’ [My mother] was like, ‘Yeah.’ So I said, ‘OK, let’s go to Houston,’” and her father, grandmother, mom, dog and two turtles all moved there. “That felt like some sort of destiny.”
But New Orleans, she says, is the source of everything she is and wants to express about herself on her album. “This is a city that I’ve grown to love so much, and it means everything to me,” says Normani. It’s here where, at age 3, she sat on the floor of her grandmother’s living room, watching Annie, and declared to her mother, “I want to do that.” It’s here that she started listening to Anita Baker and Toni Braxton -- “grown-up music” -- on the radio, silky sounds she now wants to emulate with her own voice. Here, she can walk down the street and watch kids dance on the sidewalk. “They’ll literally make tap shoes out of a can and make music,” she marvels. One day her manager was walking around, met a guy who fronts a brass band -- and just decided to put him on the album.
Recently, Normani hosted a songwriting camp at Esplanade Studios, housed in a former church here. For one week, writers ranging from Grande’s friend Victoria Monet to legendary bounce producer BlaqNmilD joined her to experiment with beats and harmonies. They ate too much, and played sections of the songs they created over and over, yelling “Ohhhhh!” -- the universal declaration for “I love this song!” The last night involved a trip to Bourbon Street and a 4 a.m. visit to Waffle House.
Writing for the album, says Normani, has brought her not only a sense of creative control, but an opportunity to use her voice in a way she never could before. “There’s so much that I have to get off my chest,” she says. “And there’s a responsibility I have as a black woman -- one of the very few to have the power to kill it. Even in the mainstream, there’s not many of us. Especially chocolate girls. Like, being African-American is one thing, but girls [with] my complexion” -- she gestures to the back of her hand for emphasis -- “it’s unheard of. It’s me, and SZA. Who else?” That’s one reason Balogun sees her success as nonnegotiable: The culture needs more Normanis. “She represents so much of what [Keep Cool] stands for,” he says. “Forward-thinking, new young black artists.”
Normani carefully dumps prechopped onions, celery and carrots into premade chicken stock. (A perk of pop stardom -- you never have to do your own mise en place.) Her mother and constant companion, Andrea Hamilton, captures iPhone footage as Normani goofs around, singing Migos’ “Stir Fry” and sipping from a spoon to check the spice level.
It’s hard not to think of this as some sort of metaphor for what it was like to be part of a prefab girl group: working with pre-prepared ingredients, blending spices but allowing one flavor to dominate. Sometimes, Normani talks about it with a distant fondness, but more often she reveals a general sense of insecurity with the place she occupied in the group, a frustration that she never had space to be herself. “So many sessions, I would cry like I’ve never cried before,” she recalls, citing one for the song “No Way” where she was the only member relegated solely to background vocals.
Moments like that exacerbated a feeling she’d had since she was one of just three black students in her predominantly white elementary school. “It was a subconscious thing,” she says. “You think, ‘Why am I the least followed in the group?’ Even if you don’t recognize that you’re paying close attention to it, it takes a toll on your confidence. You worry -- is it me? Is it because I’m black? Or am I just not talented?”
In the 5H bubble, Normani spent 24 hours a day sharing everything with her bandmates, from tampons to feelings, but her experience with race was a lonely one. In 2016, she received death threats, racial slurs and images of lynchings on Twitter after Cabello’s fans decided Normani had slighted her in a Facebook Live interview. (Cabello asked her fans to back off.)
“They tried to be there for me as best as they could,” says Normani of her bandmates, her voice dropping to a level so quiet it’s almost imperceptible. “But I don’t think they had the tools that they needed, because it’s not their experience. I can give them credit for trying to be there for me, but at the same time...” She trails off. “The girls don’t experience things the way I did.”
Normani reiterates that though they were genuinely very close, they speak infrequently now. There are still friendly, unavoidable run-ins, like her impromptu reunion with Cabello before the 2018 Billboard Music Awards -- which turned into an Instagram-ready moment of reconciliation and mutual admiration. Normani no longer pays attention to questions about who hates who, the same way she ignores questions about who will be most successful solo.
“Honestly? I’m in such an amazing place that I don’t feed into any of that,” she says, launching into a lengthy explanation that feels more like self-reassurance than anything else. “I’m way too blessed to even allow myself to focus on that. This is my time. Just like [Cabello] had an amazing run. I am so proud of everything that she’s doing. She’s nominated for a freaking Grammy! Like, that is amazing. And all from what girl group? Fifth Harmony. Like, that shit’s fire. And I know that all of us are more than capable of doing that.” She pauses, then revises the sentiment a bit. “I’ve come to believe that I am that talented. Before, I didn’t wholeheartedly believe that.”
This past may, at the BBMAs, audiences got a first glimpse of what solo Normani looked like. She joined Khalid to perform their “Love Lies” duet, which, thanks to a perfect blend of her sultry energy and his lovelorn melancholy, became a much bigger hit than she expected: Since its February release, it has spent over 40 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 9, and reached No. 1 on the Adult Top 40 chart.
When she took the stage, gone were the shaky legs and expectant eyes of her X Factor audition. Gone was the underdog who, as part of 5H, might have gone unnoticed. In her place was Normani, a magnetic performer capable of singing while helicoptering her head around seven times and landing on the floor, ass up to the heavens, all while wearing a corset so fitted it seemed grafted onto her skin.
Just like that, she was no longer simply “that girl from Fifth Harmony.” (Twitter’s collective response might best be described as “I’m shook.”) Three months later, onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, Nicki Minaj declared, “Normani is that bitch,” later inviting her onto Queen Radio. Normani couldn’t believe it, but, then again, she kind of could. “This is what I’ve always been doing,” she says with an “it’s about time” sort of shrug.
But what Normani did to earn Minaj’s honorific wasn’t simply what she had been doing all along: She had owned the stage and proved she could handle a hit like a bona fide pop star. Now, she needed to figure out if her sound actually fit that mold. So she explored other genres, hopping on two songs with Calvin Harris and showing she could do EDM (“Slow Down”) and dancehall (“Checklist”). She turned to dark R&B, joining 6LACK on the will-they-or-won’t-they duet “Waves.” “Normani is amazing in my eyes, and I would think she’s amazing in everybody’s eyes,” says 6LACK. Most recently, she teamed up with Sam Smith for “Dancing With a Stranger,” a slinky duet with late-’80s R&B vibes.
Normani’s manager, Brandon Silverstein, says that these singles amount to a mission statement: “Normani is not bound by genre -- it’s about what Normani loves.” And Normani seems most pulled toward her first love: Anita Baker in satin-sheets R&B. She describes her album’s sound as “sultry” and “dominant.” She has worked with Daniel Caesar and teased studio time with Missy Elliott. And though her LP isn’t finished yet -- she’s hoping for a second-half 2019 release -- she’s working with songwriters including Monet and “Love Lies” co-writer Tayla Parx. Balogun sees an R&B-focused lane that takes Normani straight to the mainstream.
A few hours later, Normani finally gets to taste her gumbo. Chef Joe ladles out bowlfuls and she takes a hesitant first bite, then, with an approving nod, another, and proceeds to demolish the whole bowl. She’s hungry -- just as she seems when she tells me the future she envisions.
“I see myself performing at the Grammys, traveling the world with my family. I want to meet all my fans across the world. There’s so many places I have yet to go to. I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, I really do have fans there. People know who Normani is?’” She continues quickly, almost breathless. “I want to have the clothing line. Hopefully, I go into fragrance. I want to cross over into film and acting. That’s a victory in my mind. I want to open dance schools.”
She thinks for a moment about what all that really means. “I don’t want to come and go. I want to be the one,” she says. “But through it all I want to make sure that I remember who Normani is.”
When she needs a reminder -- and sometimes she still does -- she’ll watch the “Love Lies” performance and try to see herself the way others see her -- how they see The Normani, now. “I surprise myself in moments,” she says, grinning broadly. “I’m like, ‘Is that me?’ Like, I’m a stan. I’m a stan!”
HER 'COOL' SOLO SENSEI
Tunji Balogun has an eye for boundary-pushing R&B and hip-hop talent: The 35-year-old executive vp A&R at RCA Records signed Childish Gambino and Khalid and was on the team that signed SZA, among others. Now, he’s pulling double duty as co-founder of RCA joint venture Keep Cool, where he signed Normani as his first artist last April.
How does Normani embody what you hope to accomplish with Keep Cool?
It has been so long since we’ve had a young, black woman who can appeal to the mainstream audience and the urban audience and be right in that middle zone. That’s exactly the type of artist that I want to be a part of this label, and exactly the type of artist that I’ve had success with in my career so far: young, black artists that push the culture.
How does working with her differ from the acts you’ve done A&R for in the past?
Most of the artists I’ve worked with were starting from zero, whereas Normani has the history of Fifth Harmony -- which is both a great gift and a great curse for her. She already has a story. She already has a built-in fan base. A lot of people already know who she is. [Fifth Harmony] was a heavily pop group that made great records, but not necessarily in the exact style that she’s going to go in for her solo work.
So what is the particular strategy with her?
Normani is A&R’ing herself -- she’s very much the boss here. She knows exactly what she wants. She’s always going to have pop elements in her music, but we’re definitely trying to infuse more of the R&B, to have it make sense for her without forcing anything. [She’s going to] represent for a lot of young women who may not have felt like they had somebody to root for.
-- JEWEL WICKER