If 20th Century Fox can hold on to its name well after the century it references is over, so can the members of Fifth Harmony, now that they’re down to four harmonists following the contentious exit of Camila Cabello last year. You might have wondered how much those naming rights were worth, since there’s not a great survival rate for female vocal combos after losing a prominent member to a solo career. From the Supremes to the Spice Girls, the last thing any girl group really wants is to become alpha-female-free.
But as they release a self-titled third album, Fifth Harmony — Lauren Jauregui, Ally Brooke, Dinah Jane Hansen and Normani Kordei — look to weather the slimming down better than most, as strong, individuated personalities were never the group’s biggest selling point. Observant fans may know that one member, Jauregui, is a proud, Trump-denouncing bisexual, while another, Hansen, is a Mormon, but it’s not as if any of the members’ slightly differing images or even singing styles are taken much into account when the alternating lead vocals are being doled out. In “Angel,” the latest promotional release, you might think at first that Jauregui is given the uncharacteristic F-bombs to sing (“The original me wouldn’t f— with ya / And I was beginning to f— with ya”) by virtue of being the most publicly bold member of the group, but later in the track, Hansen is assigned the exact same verse. In this re-democratizing of the girl group tradition, producers make sure that no one’s more than a verse or two from her next turn in the rotation.
The lack of looming solo star power may keep Fifth Harmony from ever being a great act, but it doesn’t make “Fifth Harmony” a bad record. There’s still a place for the true collective in pop, where running with the pack is its own ideal. You get harmony, if not so much literal harmonies, in the way these four talk to boys; the members — originally conjoined by Simon Cowell on the short-lived U.S. version of “The X Factor” — tag-team more than they blend, and they sing those hooks in staccato rhythms, almost like percussion instruments, with only the strayest bits of old R&B melisma. In the hands of such producer-writers as Ammo, Dallas K and Harmony Samuels, “He Like That” and “Sauced Up” become deep pleasures, though far from “deep.” And sometimes it’s easier to enjoy a chorale if you can relish the fun without worrying about whether Kelly or Michelle will get her turn.
Speaking of which: “Fifth Harmony” is about as close to an antithesis to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” as a modern pop-R&B album can be. Aside from the moderately aggrieved “Angel” and “Lonely Night,” there’s a lot more compliance than confrontation in the album. “Make You Mad” isn’t about making a guy angry but making him mad with desire. If the group comes off as a little more submissive than its contemporaries, that’s understandable, considering recent circumstances. After all, it could be a slippery slope, going from dominating a boyfriend to demanding more than one verse at a time on a single.