Welcome to Hook & Reel, a series showcasing music that’s guaranteed to catch your ear.
As much as everyone seems hell bent on pitting Fifth Harmony’s self-titled third album (and first as a newly minted pop quartet) against their past work, it’s unfair to do so for several reasons. One, their previous album 7/27 pulled out all the stops in terms of collaborators both in front of and behind the scenes, with talent like Benny Blanco, Julia Michaels, Kygo, Tinashe, Justin Tranter, Ammo, Ty Dolla $ign, Missy Elliot and Jack Antonoff brought on to steer the direction of the group through a diverse set of tracks. Two, it’s hard not to argue that Fifth Harmony has always in some capacity been a launch pad for Camilla’s solo career, certainly at the expense of Ally, Dinah, Lauren and Normani’s own artistic growth. Finally, each member of Fifth Harmony has in some way contributed to this new album, be it through a co-write or through directing the album’s general sound and flow.
So, you have four industry veterans (a shelf life of five years, two record contracts, one EP, and three albums in the pop universe gives you credibility of a vet) who are just now able to grow towards defining themselves as artists and their collective sound as a group, and want to take a more hands on approach to their work when before they were barely allowed to lift a finger. OH, and to top that all off, they’ve lost their most recognized member through a very public, more than slightly awkward dispute.
It’s quite a bit to handle, but they’ve found success with this new album even among the strife. Fifth Harmony debuted at #4 on the Billboard album chart, the exact same spot as 7/27. “Down,” for all of its pitfalls, reached as high as #42 on the Hot 100. The group gave a powerful performance at this year’s VMAs, and each member has been able to explore their own solo endeavors even with the intense build up to this album’s release. Ally had her collaboration with EDM troupe Lost Kings, Normani’s YouTube channel is full of slay-worthy mashups and covers, Lauren’s charted already from her song with Halsey, and Dinah’s been in the studio with RedOne. But among all these accolades and solo endeavors, how does the album really sound?
Fifth Harmony plays like an ambitious freshman debut from a fresh faced pop cast, hungry to prove themselves to the industry as an authentic force in top 40. As such, the record stays firmly planted in tried and true trends, spunky pop-R&B lifting straight from early 2000s radio while also borrowing from a modern day producer’s Fruity Loops archive. “Deliver” could easily be a B-side from Dangerously in Love, “Messy” samples from Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” and “Don’t Say You Love Me” harkens back to a time when girl groups were the acts releasing the chart-topping pop ballads. And though the album’s retro moments are fun, it’s when the group looks to 2017 and beyond that the album gets intriguing. 5h goes toe to toe with Skrillex on “Angel,” deploying brawny confidence to keep up with the producer’s volcanic beat. On the other side of the coin, “Make You Mad” is a feather-light electro-pop song with a lush, angelic drop, with the ladies utilizing breathy Julia Michaels-esque vocals.
The album’s best work is “He Like That,” a sweaty, tongue-and-cheek bedroom romp that plays to the group’s best strengths, combining lip-biting sensuality with the sort of goofy camp that’s become a hallmark for 5h’s biggest hits. Thrust forward by a sweltering guitar riff, the ladies trade off carefully crafted one-liners on their flawless beaus, the perfect mix of bad boy and stability (right there with y’all on that btw). Above everything else though, it’s the pre-chorus and the chorus that make the song such an enjoyable, silly, and sexy earworm. Lines like “I be that girl with the pumps and a bump” and “he like that bang, bang, bang, he like that bomb, bomb, bomb” are the antithesis of sophisticated lyricism, but Normani and Lauren deliver these lines with a jubilant swag that speaks of Fifth Harmony’s broadest appeal as a pop group: you may be rolling your eyes, but you’re still buying their records and dancing to their songs in the club and in your car.
If this is the output of a group just beginning to come into their own and gaining control of their own sound, can you imagine how good the next album will be? I’m here for this era, and I’m already excited for the next one.