Just after filming 2016’s New Year’s Eve special, Fifth Harmony announced Camila Cabello had left the group, under acrimonious but predictable circumstances: Cabello had laid the groundwork for a solo career well before her departure, debuting on tracks by radio-friendly Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly. The moment arrives in the story of virtually every girl or boy group. Sometimes it’s practically written in: Fifth Harmony, like One Direction, were assembled from aspiring solo artists on The X Factor, a machine with notoriously punishing yet short contracts that singers often yearn to escape. No group ever calls this moment defining, or the beginning of the end; from 1D to the Spice Girls to En Vogue, interviews and press are always about moving on, taking creative control, lasting forever. But it often is.
Fifth Harmony might be better positioned to withstand this change. Despite the name—it was the group’s third choice, anyway—Fifth Harmony’s biggest singles don’t lean on harmony so much as big unison hooks: worth it, sledgehammer, work (x1000). This probably isn’t a coincidence. Unlike say, the UK or South Korea, the American pop market is far more accommodating to solo women than girl groups. Fifth Harmony’s singles often seem like the former, and does help the group adapt once they’re down one harmony. But there’s a bit of a rushed feel to Fifth Harmony, their new album, which was cranked out in less than a year, with producers all over the map. Fifth Harmony is their third album, but their first to be self-titled: declaration of identity, or placeholder?
The result’s somewhere in between: a workmanlike pop album, vocally immaculate and sonically au courant, but seldom more than functional. It might as well be bonus tracks from last year’s 7/27. “Work From Home” was the group’s biggest hit by far, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100; unsurprisingly, nearly half the album tries to replicate its Tinkertoy-trap formula. (It doesn’t help that like most pop albums Fifth Harmony is front-loaded with potential singles, which means about four songs in a row resemble “Work From Home.”) “Down” is the most obvious follower, slowing the metronome on “Work From Home”’s hook and swapping Ty Dolla $ign for Gucci Mane. But at least it’s designed that way; other tracks slip into imitation when they’d seem better as something else. “Sauced Up” swerves from RnBass verses to bright hook, the music imitating drunken mood swerves, but the two never quite cohere. “Make You Mad” opens quiet, slyly confident, and poised to be a surprisingly sultry interlude, until the clock strikes pre-chorus and the track turns back into a trop-house song.
What isn’t derivative of “Work From Home” is derivative of other artists. The moment the words “no angel” are uttered on “Angel,” comparisons to the Beyonce track are inevitable—comparisons that would flatter few. The parts of “He Like That” written by Ester Dean evoke, inevitably, Rihanna from five years ago when she had bright hooks. The rest, particularly the rippling guitar, suggests a version of Britney Spears’ “Make Me” without G-Eazy—a great idea, but not one that screams Fifth Harmony. “Messy” is a supposedly vulnerable ballad that interpolates, distractingly, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”; the effect’s something like a heart-to-heart interrupted by a ringtone: banging on the bathroom floor. (Thanks to the “Blurred Lines” trial, Shaggy gets a credit on the song. In other words, someone went out of their way to reshuffle people’s pay to keep this in.)
More damningly, Fifth Harmony is so focused on functional, micromanaged pop tracks that it doesn’t allow the women a personality besides “vaguely, anonymously sassy.” Were it not split among multiple vocalists, Fifth Harmony might as well be Dua Lipa or Anne-Marie or any number of radio-fillers. Fifth Harmony’s certainly capable of distinctive work: in particular, Lauren Jauregui’s spot on Halsey’s “Strangers,” a track about the decaying relationship of two women, has an emotional subtlety and depth that a lot of pop music lacks. (Normani, Ally and Dinah aren’t mentioned only because they haven’t done as much solo work.) The harder edge of “Deliver” manages to cut through the tropical-rhythmic sameness, and is promising. “Angel” was produced by Skrillex, of all people, and while the pitch-shifted vocal synth immediately dates the single, the rest—Fifth Harmony’s nimble vocals over the floaty production Sonny Moore’s pivoted to—is promising as well. Whether the promise exceeds the looming history of girl groups past is another question.