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Review: Fifth Harmony Harness Pop’s Gooey, Feel-Good Core on ‘Reflection’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 3, 2015
Label: Epic

Singing competitions don’t yield hits. Their success stories are anomalies: Kelly Clarkson hit it big because she was the first-ever American Idol winner, and One Direction had the looks, talent, and goofy dance moves that were good enough to snare the tweens during their X Factor tenure before they eventually branched out into ’80s-inspired anthems on Four. But most former contestants remain stuck on the county-fair circuit, with minimal, plodding works to their name. How, then, have Fifth Harmony — the X Factor contestants formerly known as LYLAS and then 1432 — crafted one of the most forward-thinking, sheerly enthusiastic pop releases in years?

For an album two years in the making (one that sports collaborators including Meghan Trainor, Dr. Luke, and Cirkut), Reflection sounds both cohesive and modern. That said, as a debut LP, it makes a bit of a muffled statement: We’re here, we’re full of cheer, and… that’s pretty much it. But musically, Fifth Harmony never abandon their on-point hairography or picture-perfect grins for a second.

Each member of the group plays to her respective strengths consistently. Their MVP, Camila Cabello, lobs piercing vocals upwards, teeming with oversized spunk and personality. Normani Kordei treats her voice like a weapon with endless ammunition, scaling notes without fear; Dinah Jane Hansen growls with control; Ally Brooke has a caramelized belt that often lilts; and Lauren Jauregui brings a wisdom beyond her 18 years to her phrasing and delivery. Together, they harmonize without faltering — an improbability in today’s mostly group-free pop landscape.

Reflection often sounds like a Frankenstein’s monster of borrowed samples, phrases, themes, and sounds, but the stitches never show. On “Like Mariah,” the ladies stomp on featured guest Tyga with lyrics about their men making them feel all warm inside (“When you do it like this / I just lose my cool”), cleverly — never cloyingly — built around a sample of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” There’s “Top Down,” an unknowingly filthy anthem about riding in the car (“Get in the truck and I’ll be ridin’ with my top down”) while the sax player from Ariana Grande’s “Problem” bleats away in the background. Britney Spears and will.i.am should keep an eye on “This Is How We Roll,” which shamelessly lifts the “Scream and Shout” breakdown and repurposes it for a dumb-as-rocks party starter. Later, “Body Rock” drenches “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” in English producer/songwriter Harmony Samuels’ synthesized melodies and airhorns, and sprinkles in lines that the Black Eyed Peas wish they’d thought of (“I’m locked into your chain / Cause I’m addicted to the way your body moves”).

Meghan Trainor herself closes this chapter of Fifth Harmony’s young career with her verse on “Brave Honest Beautiful,” which she also wrote for them. If anything else signals the changing of the new pop guard more loudly, we’ve yet to hear it; “Show all the world you know you’re hot / Confidence will help you go far,” the Title singer raps with a seasoned vet’s confidence. Trainor’s role on the album isn’t overwhelming, but it is noteworthy. Her feel-good songwriting and female empowerment jams provide some of Reflection’s highest peaks. “Sledgehammer” mixes its messages (“The truth is out / No stopping now… Undress my love / I’m coming over”), but morphs an incessant, M83-ripped post-chorus into an admissive outpouring: “I struggle to contain / The love that’s in my veins,” they warn as the beat pounds.

That’s part of Fifth Harmony’s appeal — sure, they’ll never be on Mariah Carey’s level because their formula is damn surely replicable, but everything they touch is self-aware fun. You never get the sense that this prefabricated group simply pulls up to the studio, drops their contributions, and bounces. The project revels in its literalism and its youthfully energetic declarations (“Hashtag / I woke up like this too,” they sing on the Tinashe co-write “Them Girls Be Like.”) Reflection takes a shallow look inward and a deeper look outward than you’d expect from a nonstop party.