Fifth Harmony’s ‘Fifth Harmony:’ Album Review
2016 was a year of soaring highs and crushing lows for Fifth Harmony. The ladies rocketed to the upper echelon of the charts with some of their most anthemic songs to date and went on to become one of the best-selling girl groups of the new generation. Since The Pussycat Dolls, no group of female performers has managed to capture the public’s attention with such ease. However, 5H was also plagued by struggles that could have brought things to an end. That became evident last December when Camila Cabello took a page out of Beyonce, Nicole Scherzinger and (more recently) Zayn Malik’s book and departed the group to pursue solo stardom.
Losing a member often leaves the remaining team scrambling to rediscover their sound and evolve to fit in the eternally shifting world of pop music. Instead of disbanding, the remaining members of Fifth Harmony (Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane and Lauren Jauregui) are now closer than ever as they move in a new direction. Today (August 25), less than a year after Camila’s departure, they have returned with their self-titled studio album. It is easily their most eclectic release, and it puts them more in control of their creative direction than ever before.
In an interview with Billboard earlier this summer, the remaining members bubbled over with excitement when talking about their forthcoming project. Ally alluded to the album’s genre-hopping sound and promised it incorporated bold pop melodies but would also deliver something more urban. Normani revealed that the group had written on many of the potential tracks, saying that the album may be their most personal release to date. With these bold promises, it is a little confusing why the group moved forward with the Gucci Mane-assisted “Down” as the project’s lead single. After hinting at personal and creative growth, they returned to their comfort zone of big pop productions and semi-anthemic lyrics clearly hoping for an instant hit.
The ladies made a calculated effort to recapture the magic of “Work From Home” on the release, and, technically, they played all their cards right. They teamed up with an in-demand rapper and many of the same writers and producers responsible for their most successful single to date in an effort to hit the scene with another bop. Unfortunately, the end result felt a bit more derivative than forward looking. The neon-drenched music video and a handful of strong promotional performances helped, but it was hardly surprising when the track stalled just outside the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. The girls were going to have to deliver something a little different to reclaim their spot in the chart’s upper reaches.
Thankfully, they managed to smooth things out a bit with buzz track “Angel.” Teaming up with Skrillex and Poo Bear, the track veers deeply into hip hop territory with a sparse production and some trap-inspired bass. Rapping along to the chilly beat, the ladies took control of a failing relationship and moved on. “Should’ve never crossed that line with ya. Everything was cool, just drinkin’ with ya,” Dinah cries out on the chorus. “I’m more brilliant than you’ll ever be,” she and Normani declare to their piss-poor lover in the track’s final moments. Sounding confident and in control, “Angel” fulfilled their promises and made the release instantly more exciting.
Second single “He Like That” is even stronger and is potentially one of the best cuts on the LP. “You got that good boy attitude, and yeah I kinda like it. You got the tats on your arm, got a bad girl excited,” they coo over a slinky production from Ammo and DallasK. Co-writer Ester Dean’s urban influence is all over the track, which oozes confidence and sex appeal in a way that “Down” failed to achieve. Coupled with an earworm-worthy chorus, the track could easily become one of the group’s most successful in their discography while rocketing up the charts in the late summer months.
Much of Fifth Harmony sees the group retreating to familiar lyrical territory. They tackle breakups over slick beat drops on the sparkling “Make You Mad,” promise to unleash a sexy time on the R&B-tinged “Deliver” and make a stand for equality in a relationship on the trop-pop urban crossover that is “Lonely Night.” While pleasant, the tracks are a little forgettable in the current pop landscape. They could perform well with strong visuals but are hardly the group’s best outings. Instead, the hitmakers find more success when they bear their heart on the LP’s strongest mid-tempos “Don’t Say You Love Me” and “Bridges.”
Teaming up with Ian Kirkpatrick for the former, the ladies ask for honesty in a relationship over a striking production. Building to a crescendo on the chorus, it sets the scene for one of the group’s most tender vocal performances yet. Things get a little more political on “Bridges,” a track that features writing from Ally, Lauren, and Dinah and that turns Donald Trump’s desire to build walls upside down. Instead of sharing divisive messaging, “Bridges” expresses a desire to bring the world together. “We build bridges. No, we won’t separate. We know love can conquer hate, so we build bridges. Bridges, not walls,” they declare in a powerful moment on what is easily their most mature track ever.
Comprised of a paltry 10 tracks and with a runtime just over 30 minutes, it’s hard for the girls to hide any subpar songs in the mix. Unfortunately, there are a handful of duds on the LP. The most glaring misstep is the tepid club cut “Sauced Up,” which probably sounded dated the moment it was recorded and has aged poorly since then. “We can get sauced up. Forever we’re young, we’ll never get old. Blame it on drunk love,” they sing over a fizzing production. Making use of cliched slang may have worked for the group on “Bo$$,” but the result here is as depressing as drinking flat champagne. Even more concerning is that Dinah went as far as to compare the track to Beyonce’s “Party.”
Sloppy lyricism also defines the otherwise relatable and pretty “Messy.” Instagram and Snapchat are not for forever, and hearing references to filters will instantly date the cut as time moves on. Regardless, there’s something beautiful about the track, which Normani compared to The Pussycat Dolls’ defining ballad “Stickwitu.” During a time when everyone wants their pop princesses to be as relatable as possible, “Messy” tears down some of the group’s walls but is unlikely to ever become as successful as its inspiration.
Fifth Harmony is a statement from the quartet. Since their creation on the 2012 run of X Factor, the girls have proven that they can make anything happen. Though their origin stems from a calculated move on the part of an industry executive, it seems as though the group found a bond of sisterhood within one another. While their third LP is a mixed bag, what sparkles in the mix shows growth and promises longevity. More importantly, it shows that the group has found the voice that best suits them. Their own.