She is the girl who takes over the world. There she stands, atop a stage decked out with slick platforms stacked three high. Her hands on her hips, feet spread to slightly more than shoulder-width apart to assert her stance, hair flicked easily over one shoulder. The unrelenting power pose. An arena of converts, the captive audience, watches as she announces her dominance. She is the shining survivor risen from the rubble, the star at the center of it all. The winds shift as a new pop prophecy is fulfilled: Normani has arrived.
She has spent the interim between the breakup of Fifth Harmony, the group Normani was formerly a part of, and is now sitting in the waiting room of superstardom. Her time has been filled with make-or-break moments.
There was “Love Lies,” a Khalid single on which she featured that would eventually reach the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Then, there was a performance of the track at the Billboard Music Awards, where Normani literally pushed the song’s lead artist into the shadows for a dance break that lit up social media. Most recently, she stepped out completely on her own onstage at Barclays Center. She was one of the performers for the Tidal X Brooklyn benefit concert where she was listed alongside acts like Lil Wayne, Lauryn Hill, Meek Mill and Anderson .Paak.
Each performance was important. They were opportunities for Normani to build her legacy, to create entries for a years-off highlight reel of her career. But, none felt as vital as the Tidal show.
Alone on stage for the first time, she had the audience’s undivided attention. In her arsenal: two Calvin Harris-assisted club bangers released the night before, a stage designed by Beyonce’s art director, a good chunk of the audience knowing the lyrics to “Love Lies” and every bit of talent (high energy choreo, breath control, stage presence) she could muster. These were the tools she would need to prove she was a superstar, that she was ready to take over the world.
Everything Normani (whose last name is Kordei, but the pop music world likes to reserve the mononyms for their best and brightest) has done to this day has readied her for the pop music stratosphere. There were the days in the girl group. The hours spent perfecting choreography and honing her voice, an extension of her time on “The X Factor,” a show created to find and groom future pop supernovas.
Now, as a solo artist, this legwork has given her a distinct advantage. There’s the built in fanbase, the former Fifth Harmony devotees parceling their loyalties out to support each of the girls as she forges her own identity. The loyal listeners who will stream any release the second it drops. The armada of early adopters that helped former bandmate Camilla Cabello’s track “Havana” become more ubiquitous on this planet than oxygen.
On the road to superstardom, Normani has never taken a step out of place. And yet, her breakout moment has been positioned at a peculiar point in pop music history. The very definition of pop music is changing. The Billboard charts were once dominated by the kind of single-name music superstar that came with their own brand. Think Britney, Beyonce and Gaga. Now, these same charts have been overtaken by tracks helmed by SoundCloud success stories, by young and previously unknown artists who somehow struck gold.
There’s no denying that America loves an underdog. Before “Lucid Dreams” became one of the most popular songs in the country, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, Juice WRLD had worked in a Chicago factory, being fired before finding the producer that would eventually help him create the mixtape that contained the track. Similarly, Cardi B has openly discussed the details of her life before becoming one of the world’s most popular and sought-after artists.
The avenues in which people find music have changed drastically over the past several years. Where the world’s biggest songs were once the products of ceaselessly long trails of hype, a formula mastered by artists whose every move was closely groomed and stewarded by managers and executives, modern music has taken a more direct line. Today’s most popular songs make their way onto the playlists of the American public after they’re discovered soundtracking a viral video or in the background of Kylie Jenner’s Instagram story.
The tastes of the American public will always be fickle, and the music industry will always bend and shift to meet the demands of the listeners. As it stands now, the country seems to have embraced a different sort of artist than they did just a few years ago. Gone are the days of pop stars built on mystery, who created their personas on enigmatic interviews, extravagant costumes and complex dance breaks.
The stars arrange themselves differently now. The audience’s ability to latch onto the artist themselves, their sparkling personalities and their stories of struggle on their way to being plucked from obscurity and scaling the charts, has become nearly as important as the music itself. An artist that built something from nothing is an artist built on authenticity.
Normani is trapped in the transition. She seems to be forging a career in the vein of pop music’s past. She is pulling from a play book created when being untouchable was the greatest resource for pop music success. She has been endlessly groomed from her girl group days, with the type of prowess in navigating the music industry that could only have been refined from several years of training within it.
As she stood onstage at the Tidal concert, the center of attention for the thousands of people in attendance, the fact became clear. Her success – whether or not she achieves the sort of stratospheric music world domination expected of her – will test the boundaries of how the world has come to define the modern-day pop star. The era of deep-from-the-diaphragm vocals and tight choreography may be dwindling, but Normani is forging ahead, doing what she does best. She’s ready to take over the world, if only the world will let her.