With Fifth Harmony’s ‘Reflection’ now streaming on iTunes radio, BreatheHeavy’s Aaron Butterfield takes a look at the much delayed debut LP from the artists formerly known as LYLAS and 1432.
It’s make or break time for Fifth Harmony. The X Factor alums have been readying their debut release for well over two years now, giving us an EP, three singles and one too many pushbacks. The manufactured girl group have always had potential, taking home Artist to Watch at 2014’s VMAs, but despite a string of strong singles, have yet to score an actual hit.
There’s a sense that whilst die hard Harmonizers are alive and well, the general public has somewhat lost interest in the Simon Cowell discovery who at one time were touted as the female answer to One Direction. Whether or not that ship has sailed all depends on the quality of their debut full-length offering, so the perfectly acceptable but not altogether consistent ‘Reflection’ makes the future worryingly unclear for Fifth Harmony.
The album begins with the listenable but dull “Top Down.” Featuring a funked-up beat, the opening number doesn’t sound current enough to be cutting edge, nor retro enough to be a deliberate throwback. It would also seem that “Wiggle” hitmaker, Jason Derulo, has rendered horns entirely unusable in pop songs, as "Top Down’s" honk-hook makes the song sound like a pale imitation of Derulo’s 2013 smash, “Talk Dirty.” Despite a catchy melody and heaps of the girls’ trademark swag, the track is ultimately unmemorable which is worrying way to start the record.
Indeed, “Top Down” exemplifies the identity crisis that the bulk of ‘Reflection’ suffers from. The most notable characteristic of the album is that it rarely manages to carve out a unique identity or cohesive sonic vision. There’s a real disharmony (if you’ll pardon the pun) between the stylistic pools that the girls dip their toes in, and rather than feeling like a record which is experimenting with a variety of genres, the LP can often seem lost and confused, at least in terms of sound and production. Lyrically, however, Fifth Harmony’s mission statement couldn’t be clearer and no track better exemplifies the girl-power theme of ‘Reflection’ than first single, “BO$$.”
Those hoping that the five-piece would expand on the sound of the lead single will be disappointed because “BO$$” is still the best and most forward thinking track on the record. Although it tries to position itself as the musical cornerstone of the album, the songs that emulate the style, sass and sound of the ode to Michelle Obama are imitators rather than equals and none excel the way 'Reflection''s debut offering does. Between the percussive, minimal instrumentation and the pop culture-referencing, properly-insane lyrics, the song’s under-performance on the charts is a damning statement about the enduring power of the girl group.
The track's lukewarm commercial response is a shame because Fifth Harmony don't hit the mark harder than when singing about sisterhood - Meghan Trainor-penned bonus track “Brave, Honest, Beautiful” is another great example of this. It's baffling that one of the highlights of the album is relegated to deluxe edition status - "Brave, Honest, Beautiful" could provide a much needed boost to the record. In fact, between the ballsy “Bootilicous” inspired intro’ and a chorus which manages to reference Beyoncé, Shakira, Rihanna and Madonna in one breath, the self esteem anthem is without a doubt one of Meghan’s finest efforts yet. Even M-Train’s usually unbearable rap-singing and tiresome, inexplicable Jamaican accent don’t lessen the impact of “Brave, Honest, Beautiful” - it’s ultimately the one of the album tracks with the most replay value.
Following the lead single is the brilliant, although seemingly inconsistent, “Sledgehammer”, which – whilst a superb pop song – didn’t make much sense as a follow-up to “BO$$.” Luckily, the track is far less jarring as part of the overall ‘Reflection’ collection. Another one of three Meghan Trainor co-writes on the record, it’s not only much better than the remaining M-Train offering, “Suga Mama,” it’s actually far superior to anything on her own debut album, which is a little puzzling, but good news for Fifth Harmony.
The smartly written, ‘80s inspired electro-pop moment would be a huge event in an arena, should the group ever make it that far. The girls are to be commended for their command of the massive track, and the fact that their voices manage not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the song is a feat in and of itself. Ali’s soaring ad-lib from the middle-8 to the final chorus is frank and a triumphant pop moment – indeed, the whole track is a vocal tour de force.
It’s not all good news for ‘Reflection’ though – a lot of the album’s less stellar offerings have the potential to be fantastic but are fundamentally flawed, none more so than current promotional single, “Worth It.”
Much like “Top Down,” “Worth It” would benefit from the replacement of the horn riffs with an instrumental hook that makes the otherwise listenable cut sound less dated. Similarly, the track could live quite happily without Kid Ink’s contribution which adds very little to the overall momentum of the buzz single and is predictably free from pesky additions like charm or character. Actually, the whole number is a bit of a non-event and the catchiness of the bridge is counterbalanced by an underwhelming (and at times actually quite irritating) chorus, not aided by forgettable verses.
‘Aquarius’ diva Tinashe’s contribution to ‘Reflection,’ “Them Girls Be Like,” suffers from similar problems and is another potentially outstanding instant which makes much less impact than it should. With clever and witty verses, chock full of references du jour (including hashtags, instagrams and #iwokeuplikedis,) and a simple but effective beat, “Them Girls Be Like” has all the makings of a decent cut but is ultimately let down by another underwhelming chorus. The uninspired melody and inability to maintain the pace of the rest of the song means the central moment of “Them Girls Be Like” hits a bum note.
The sonic indecision of the album is most problematic when Fifth Harmony turn their hands towards dance rather the urban offerings at which they excel. Despite enlisting production powerhouse Dr. Luke, EDM number “This Is How We Roll” is one of 'Reflection''s weakest links (goodbye.) Although perfectly enjoyable (if not underwhelming,) there’s no denying that the instrumentation is, um, we’ll say, inspired by will.i.am and Britney Spears’ 2012 hit, “Scream and Shout.” The bouncy-bit beat sounds almost identical to the cut from painfully average ‘#willpower’ which is damning enough; the fact that the track also appears to borrow a rehash of guitar chords from the same track is borderline inexcusable. Aside from any legal ramifications of the startling similarities, “This Is How We Roll” simply sounds dated because of where it draws motivation. “Scream and Shout” has not aged well and so Fifth Harmony’s attempt at dance gold falls flat.
There is a sense that Fifth Harmony have simply swept up discarded ideas and sounds from the cutting room floors of those more successful and accomplished than them, an approach which doesn’t work with tracks like “This Is How We Roll” and EDM bonus track “Body Rock”, which sounds like a demo Cheryl Cole would pass on. It is, however, more successful with the Ariana Grande-lite “Everlasting Love”.
The track draws from the throwback of Grande’s 2013 debut with a surprising degree of success. Although nothing revolutionary with its Mariah Carey vibes and good-enough vocals, the song benefits from its own simplicity and works well enough; its catchy hook alone makes this effort far less forgettable than the weaker moments of ‘Reflection.’
The album picks up somewhere around reference heavy title track, “Reflection,” another girl power anthem done well, creating the spirit of a modernized Destiny’s Child, which is by no means a bad thing. A genuinely surprising lyrical twist and great writing from Jacob Kasher paired with solid production from X Factor heavy-weight Julian Bunetta make for a well crafted song, brimming with personality and sass.
Interestingly, it’s the song-craft rather than the vocals which shine on the LP – whilst the girls’ vocal abilities have a few moments in the spotlight, they’re largely overshadowed by the lyrical finesse of the record’s better moments. A few more harmonic and vocal risks would have paid off and made for a more interesting record, however, and the album can feel pedestrian in delivery at times.
The haunting, semi-acapella standard-edition closer, “We Know,” is a wasted opportunity in this respect. With some impressive ad-libs and a generally interesting instrumental (or lack thereof) this should be the moment where Fifth Harmony show us, well, their harmonies. Whilst the track doesn’t fail, it doesn’t attempt anything particularly vocally impressive which is a shame because it would elevate this essentially uninteresting number into a real show-stopper.
So is there any saving grace for the largely mixed ‘Reflection?’ Absolutely, and it comes in the form of “Like Mariah.” One of the record’s triumphs is making this hypothetically ridiculous song work so well. The Mariah Carey sample characterizes the track without dominating it and the melodic construction of the titular phrase is pretty damn spectacular. “Like Mariah” should fail simply because it’s so over-thought – basing a song who’s lyrical motif is about Carey on a sample of one of her signature hits and throwing in a Tyga feature for good measure doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. However, “Like Mariah” is a victory against the odds for Fifth Harmony and, despite an overload of stylistic ideas, is effortlessly cool.
Ultimately, “Like Mariah” represents what ‘Reflection’ should have been. A collection of solid R&B/Pop crossover with a slight leaning towards the left-field – big ideas with on trend execution and explosive delivery. Whilst the best moments of ‘Reflection’ are arguably better than the urban offerings of far bigger names than Fifth Harmony, the worst moments are optimistically forgettable but realistically, they're simply not very good. Whilst the album is very enjoyable, with no big hits under their collective belt, Fifth Harmony needed to be outstanding, not simply passable.
The question remains as to whether ‘Reflection’ will salvage some semblance of a career for the girls, but the lack of identity and confusion regarding both direction and audience suggest not. It’s a shame because seldom does such an exciting group of girls come along – a group who have talent in line with the demographic potential to succeed. Fifth Harmony have all the makings of a superb girl group, all that is, except for the overwhelming commercial success of predecessors Destiny’s Child, TLC and the like. Will 'Reflection' bring Fifth Harmony this kind of success? It seems unlikely, so here’s hoping Syco gives them another shot and they get to make album number two. With this much potential, it'd be a travesty to discard the girls because of a patchy start.
Hit: "BO$$," "Sledgehammer," "Like Mariah" and "Brave, Honest, Beautiful"
Miss: "Top Down," "Worth It," "Going Nowhere" and "Body Rock"