Thursday, June 2, 2016

7/27 | Fifth Harmony



It looked like the Fifth Harmony girls weren't going to make it to the mainstream last year, didn't it? They pushed the drop date of their debut album around like a hockey puck and released some singles that really only took off among their established group of fans online. People just weren't here for a new generation of girl groups... or so it seemed, until "Worth It," the cocky, trend-chasing club bop, took off without warning. As the American career of Little Mix was left to R.I.P. (rest in pieces), Fifth Harmony finally found their footing.

Our girls haven't changed from Reflection: their music is still brash, they're still on top of the girl group hierarchy, and Camila Cabello still thinks the other four are just glorified back-up dancers. Even still, their transition to the new age Pussycat Dolls is undeniable. Remember 2013 Fifth Harmony? Camila wore Claire's hair bows, Ally had bangs, and all five of them donned tween-chic attire to match their squeaky clean tunes. A lot of things have changed, yes? Like Ariana Grande in her latest album cycle, the girls embrace their sexuality -- it may just be the basis of the schtick nowadays. But I have to argue that unlike Grande, who made her intentions clear that she kicked up the heat for her own merits, our Fifth Harmony girls might be doing so for the wrong reasons.

Sure, they're strong, independent ladies. On their last album, they told us that they were bosses, just like Michelle Obama, whose purse is said to be quite heavy with Oprah-emblazoned dollars. Nowadays, they're living the life poolside, getting lit and feeling rich. (This track isn't the grandest, by the way, especially considering Tinashe authored it. Bless that chorus for doing its best to save it.) Even referencing those who came before them, they're unabashed, self-proclaimed independent women, as noted on opening track "That's My Girl." (Also written by Tinashe, this track is actually unbelievably grand. That stomping beat and overworked horn go hard.)

When all of that business goes out the door so the girls can default to sexual submission, a split personality arises that could discount their "mad independent" statuses. All that talk of nudes, derrières, and bedroom shenanigans seem to be done for the benefit of the men on the receiving end more than for the girls themselves. But I get it, I really do: "Work From Home" is half Rugrats theme and half bonafide bop. In all honesty, it's one of pop radio's best offerings this year. "Write on Me," with its tweedle-deedle-dee synth pattern and light instrumentation, can be filed under the same category -- it masks reliance on a man with a melody line that is too infectious to pass up. Guilty as charged.

In other news, a Fetty Wap collaboration doesn't lend itself to much boasting. Nobody asks for Fetty Wap collabs, nobody wants Fetty Wap collabs... he's a special type of musical plague nowadays. In Fifth Harmony's case, the girls better thank their lucky stars that the chorus of "All in My Head (Flex)" saves the song from oblivion after he opens the track. I must note, though, that it isn't a song great enough to explain why it has 21 co-writers. That's a bit ludicrous, yes? Yet the girls did produce something here that is more impressive than a pop song written by nearly two dozen people, and no, it's not the fact that they found the most awkward word to describe a hug (of all of the words in the English vocabulary, someone thought "squeeze" was the best fit) in what is supposedly a vulnerable ballad: they scored a Missy Elliott co-signature.

Elliott, once more omnipresent than Nicki Minaj is today, has become much more elusive, so when she finally does appear once or twice a year, we know we better listen up. Here, she is embedded seamlessly into "Not That Kinda Girl," arguably one of the group's best tracks to date. A very clear nod to Janet Jackson, it finally flips the objectification to the men that they spent so many of these tracks pleasing (and it begs for a choreographed music video before the end of this album's cycle). Sure, Fifth Harmony is the best of their kind today -- because there's not much competition out there to give them a run for their money -- and they're sufficient in their purpose. But tracks like "Not That Kinda Girl," "Work From Home" (in all of its submissive glory), and "Gonna Get It Better" (it's one of the two pieces of midtempo magic here, alongside "Write on Me") prove that there's potential for true greatness that has yet to be fulfilled by a perfected body of work that truly packs a punch.

Camila's efforts to make a spectacle of herself on stage and on studio tracks aside, the group has yet to present itself with a true Beyoncé figure. While this could spell disaster for the girls post-Fifth Harmony (they have been very gracious in their public acceptance of the ultimate fate of every girl group), it makes for a well-rounded album now in regards to the attention to vocal talent. (Not to mention that sonically, this one is also a bit more focused than the last.) But what these girls lack is a true identity outside of being lady bosses -- identities that they poke holes in without even realizing it... really, without many of us listeners realizing it at first, either. To compensate, they've given us an album filled with songs that encompass a whole range of female musician archetypes. They may work (work, work, work, work, work, work) those personalities well, but I think we'd all really like to see Fifth Harmony be, well, just Fifth Harmony.

7/27 is available now under Epic Records and Syco Music in both standard and deluxe pressings.

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Maira Gall