“Everytime I see Normani perform I feel like she hasn’t graduated Beyoncé school yet,” tweeted New York Times writer Sandra E. Garcia earlier this month. Normani, who rarely claps back on Twitter, responded writing, “then don’t watch.”
It was a rare moment of frustration from the former-Fifth Harmony member and rightfully so. Since officially launching her solo career last year, she’s become known for her performances. Her Love Lies performance with Khalid at the Billboard Music Awards featured one of the most stunning dance breaks we’ve seen at an award show and her opening slot for Ariana Grande’s recent tour has led to a flood of viral videos highlighting her dancing.
Normani hasn’t been shy about about expressing her love for Beyoncé. She’s been asked about her in nearly every interview she’s completed and the pressure to live up to her standards is obviously real. When she dropped her first solo single without a feature Motivation last week, the video began with a nod to Bey’s Crazy In Love – a clip that dropped when Normani was 7. There’s a difference, however, between acknowledging inspiration and accepting blatant comparison. The job of the former lies with Normani while the latter is on us.
It’s easy to see why the comparisons have become click-bait fodder for publications to introduce people to Normani. They’re both black women with ties to Houston who emerged from successful girl groups to try their hands at solo superstardom. We know how that went for Beyoncé and given the early response to Normani it’s likely she’s on a similar path. They’re both able to dip in-and-out of the pop world with ease taking on jaw-dropping choreo alongside pitch-perfect vocals. There’s plenty there except the simple fact is – it’s not doing either of them any favours.
Google ‘Normani is this generation’s Beyoncé’ and you’ll be presented with 137,000 search results. That number flared when she dropped Motivation proving the comparisons aren’t going to subside anytime soon. There are a number of issues with that. The first is that Beyoncé is this generation’s Beyoncé. She’s still very much on top of her game — last year’s Coachella headline performance and the subsequent Homecoming project is testament to that. The second is that Normani is this generation’s Normani.
Normani should be given the space to dictate her own path without having everything analysed through a Beyoncé lens. When you consider her as a singular artist, she’s doing a brilliant job launching a solo career. Since last year, she’s clocked two top 10 singles in the US, flirting with pop and urban styles. Sam Smith, Khalid, Calvin Harris, Quavo and Jesse Reyez have all worked with her, providing a platform that she’s risen above on every occasion.
Motivation, her first featureless single, is an important step for her. The punchy, R&B-flavoured pop track has resonated immediately with an overwhelmingly positive response. It stands on its own as a hit but it’s undeniably elevated by a video that features some of the most iconic dance work we’ve seen this side of the millennium. There are nods to not just Beyoncé but a bevy of early ’00s icons from Britney Spears to Aaliyah.
These influences seem to have been pushed to the side though as the internet has been quick to label it her Crazy In Love moment. For the most part these are harmless compliments, supporting the idea that Normani has the talent to push her to the top – a spot that many will agree has been occupied by Beyoncé for the better part of a decade. On the other side of that, there have been accusations that it’s all an impersonation. It’s an idea that essentially strips Normani of her success and paints her as a tribute act.
It also supports a harmful, unspoken notion that there’s only room for one female black popstar at the top. Over the weekend, Twitter user GranVarones rolled out a thread that detailed the criticism that black females have faced in the pop realm over the past 20 years. Samantha Mumba, blaque and INOJ are all used as examples of artists and groups who were unable to sustain success as they fell in between pop and urban. Meanwhile, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani all thrived peppering their work with urban influences while still being comfortably labelled pop.
the weird conversation about normani being too “pop” is nothing new. since the rise of pop music, as we know of it in the past 20 years, black women have faced criticism by y’all and challenges at both radio and MTV. here are five black women who should have been pop stars. pic.twitter.com/EWlmRoNWIZ
— mariah, take me away (@GranVarones) August 18, 2019
Interestingly, he also mentions Kelly Rowland whose career has too often been placed alongside Beyoncé despite the pair releasing very different records. She scored enormous success in the European dance world but has failed to clock constant worldwide hits as she too has been labelled too urban or too pop. The thread has been supported by Kehlani who has been vocal about the lack of appreciation for the lack of black females in the pop world.
“No one ever says, ‘Oh, she’s trying to be the next Britney or the next Christina.’ Yet somehow me, Tinashe, Jhene all wanna be Aaliyah,” Kehlani told the LA Times in 2017.
“People try to pit us against each other … but I don’t want to be put in a box or given these weird expectations or limitations.”
Calling Normani this generation’s Beyoncé suggests that there’s some sort of handing of the torch. Beyoncé will step down while Normani will thrive until it’s her time to pass it on.
Tinashe once said, “If you’re a black woman, you’re either Beyoncé or Rihanna.”
She wasn’t blaming them for her mainstream failures, she was simply saying that the media attempts to box black female popstars in together as if, “[they had] to sacrifice someone because there wasn’t enough room,” as she told The Guardian.
It’s worrying that this sort of narrative is emerging once again with Normani. Her Fifth Harmony peer Camila Cabello comfortably moved from the group into solo stardom without these shadowing comparisons so why can’t Normani also be her own star?
Let’s leave the Beyoncé comparisons right here and let Normani move into the space that she desires. It’s very possible that there will come a time in the near future where both Beyoncé and Normani occupy the upper-echelons of the charts with different or similar records.
We don’t need this generation’s Beyoncé. She’s still here. We do, however, need this generation’s Normani.