When 22-year-old pop singer and dancer Normani flew the Fifth Harmony coop to embark on a solo career, timing could not have been more perfect for a big, brazen pop anthem. With all the choreo queens — Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyoncé — occupied by tours or side projects, the skilled girl group singer-dancer could have booty-popped to the top in her sleep.
Instead of playing to her obvious strengths, Normani took the road less travelled with her scintillating solo debut, “Love Lies.” She not only released a slow R&B ballad in the dead of winter; but she recruited the genre’s prodigal son, five-time Grammy nominee Khalid, to sing with her. If there was ever a time to call in a favor from DJ Khaled or Pitbull, this would’ve been it.
But Normani held her own, and so did “Love Lies.” After spending a record-breaking 24 weeks on the Billboard Pop Songs radio airplay chart, the lovelorn scorcher slow-burned all the way to Number One — a first for both Normani and Khalid. “Love Lies” started as a bit of an outlier, but it latched onto a rising wave of window-steaming hits from heavyweights like Drake to newcomers like Ella Mai. More than radio popularity, the success of “Love Lies” gave Normani the artistic credibility a pop group ex-pat needs to stand out as a soloist.
“It’s just been a real pivotal moment for me,” Normani tells Rolling Stone. She’s sitting with her mom before taking a red-eye from Los Angeles to Rihanna’s Diamond Ball in New York City. There will be dress waiting for her in the morning, she says, but so long as she meets Rihanna, she doesn’t seem too concerned about the details. More than anything else, she seems excited, like she’s finally able to shine at a party she’s been attending for years.
When you sing “Love Lies” is there a particular experience or person you’re thinking about?
For sure. This has happened multiple times. For me, I know that there’s been plenty of times I’ll either be interested in someone, and it’s like, “okay is this going to be reciprocated?” Just dealing with that uncertainty…
Are you someone who likes the chase?
I feel like I’m the one that kind of lays back. I like to read people and try to figure out their intentions first, even though you can never really be too sure. I think it’s important for women to protect their hearts, protect themselves, because when we fall, we definitely fall. Which is a really beautiful thing — but it should only be received by someone very special.
Have you been able to have a long-term relationship?
My longest was two years.
That’s a long time!
It’s a minute.
I imagine it’s got to be really hard — maybe getting harder — to find people that you can trust.
Yeah. One, it’s about time. What time do I really have to fully commit to someone right now? But also, it’s scary, because with the success that I have now, it’s like, “what are your intentions? What’s your motive?” But they’ve got to go through my family first, so. That’s how I’ll know.
Do you know how your parents met?
They met when my dad was in college. My dad’s younger than my mom. He went to Georgia Tech, and she was a flight attendant, and she was traveling, but one of her girlfriends knew my dad. She was trying to set them up on a blind date for the longest time, but that never happened. Then one night they were both at a club, the same place at the same time, and then that was it.
Since your mom traveled all the time, what’s her advice to you for dealing with long-distance relationships?
I think the biggest part, especially if it’s long-distance, is making sure you’re with someone you’re fully able to trust. There’s nothing worse than being in a separate space and worrying, “What if?” Just knowing for a fact that that person is loyal and committed to you wholeheartedly.
Are you more traditional when it comes to romance, once you’re dating someone?
Traditional in what way?
Like monogamous, or —
Oh, absolutely. It’s funny that you actually asked that. I was just on YouTube watching this conversation between couples that were into monogamy, and then others that were polyamorous. It was interesting to hear the different points of view. I believe [in monogamy]. There’s something beautiful about just being committed to that one person, and even if things aren’t always great, being able to work through that. Especially now — I’m going through that now — I’ve just been working my butt off, but [guys in their] 20s? They’re just not yet men. They’re trying to figure it out. They’ve kind of got to go through the fuckboy phase. But if you find someone, let me know. [Laughs].
Have you ever been set up on a blind date?
No — I hate surprises. I really do. Even [something] as simple as a gift. So I couldn’t see myself going on a blind date. I think all blind dates are awkward. If they’re anything like they are in movies, I’m not up for it.
Have you ever been on a date where you Google-stalked the person beforehand?
Honestly? You’d be surprised; I haven’t been on many dates. I don’t hang out much. I’m in Pinkberry and the studio. That’s pretty much it.
The frozen yogurt place?
Yeah. I love it. I’ll probably go there in the next hour.
By the way, what was the deal with Nicki Minaj shouting you out at the Video Music Awards? Are you friends?
[Laughs] She has my back. Yes, we are. She’s just been a huge supporter. I think she just really sees something in me, and she’s very passionate, and I’m just as passionate about her.
Were you an early fan?
Oh, very early, like the mixtape days. That’s why it’s such a big deal for me. If somebody told me that Nicki Minaj would be a champion [of mine] I just wouldn’t have believed it. She is responsible for the majority of my childhood, and the influence that she had on me growing up — being that female that we’ve had over the course of the last 10 years or so, just really dominating. I’m really grateful to have someone like that to speak up for me and respect my craft — something I really work hard on and take seriously.
After being in Fifth Harmony and knowing the pop landscape so well, did you ever feel like it was a mistake putting out a slow R&B song for your first big solo single?
There was some uncertainty. It’s a big deal putting out music that’s different from what everybody’s used to hearing from you, or seeing you as. [“Love Lies”] is a slower, mellower song among all the big, up-tempo hip-hop records right now that are really dominating, like Migos. But I think it is a real moment for R&B. There’s so much great music, like Ella [Mai], SZA, Khalid — and I’m excited to be a part of that.
How is the pressure different from being in Fifth Harmony?
There are so many people excited for me, which I love, but that comes with pressure. I look at my core fans and see how loyal, dedicated and committed they’ve been. How they’ve rocked with me from the beginning. I just want to live up to those expectations.
Now that you’ve got some distance from it, how would you characterize your Fifth Harmony “persona?”
I was the performer. I wanted to be like Michael Jackson was, Beyoncé. Britney. I wanted — and want — to be like Janet Jackson. I feel like that was kind of my role in Fifth Harmony, to be the entertainer.
What are your go-to Beyoncé songs for getting over someone?
“Jealous.” “Sorry.” And “Freakum Dress.” I always find myself in my living room on YouTube watching videos from B’Day — I see so much of myself in that era.
So many of her great songs are about overcoming professional and romantic pain; do you write best in the heat of the moment or do you prefer to have some emotional distance?
I’m definitely more reactive. I like to write whenever I’m going through something. But it definitely varies; I’ll have my not-so-amazing moments, and I’ll have my confident moments, but the important thing for me throughout the album process was to make sure that I’m making a body of work that women are genuinely able to connect to. I want women to really hear [themselves] in my songs.
What’s one song or lyric you wrote that you’re particularly proud of in that respect?
It would have to be the line: “You’re beautiful, your blessing is growing up to be a black woman.” It will possibly be on my next project. That’s just a line that I’m really proud of, and Victoria Monet, she went in on this song. It really just started with a conversation [between us]. I’m lucky to work with such talented writers and producers. That’s when my vision really comes to life.