At August’s 2017 Video Music Awards, Fifth Harmony were awarded the first moonperson of the night—for Best Pop Video, for their hit “Down” featuring Gucci Mane. While accepting the award, the four members of the once quintet choked back tears—genuinely appreciative for the fans who’ve stuck with them since losing its arguably most popular member Camila Cabello to a solo career. They’re doing just fine without her, a move confirmed when they hit the stage to perform the single later that evening (a hybrid with their current radio banger “Angel”) that earned them the trophy. They started on a platform and had a faceless fifth member jettisoned off before launching into the medley, symbolizing their strength in lesser numbers. It was shady, sure, but sometimes bad blood and lost trust can breathe life into an endeavor—the current iteration of 5H remains because they love it, and each other.
The rest of their VMA set was one of the more successful performances of the night because of their own ferocity, their three-part harmonies sung as a foursome, stretching expectation of listenership. Watching Fifth Harmony is a constant reminder of their talent and the VMAs evoked the same kind of excitement as their Good Morning America performance of “Down” just two months prior, their first time ever singing the single—which resident 5H goth queen Lauren Jauregui introduced with “You miss us?” We did.
The story of five becoming four is a messy one: in December of last year, Fifth Harmony announced Cabello’s departure from the group, mentioning that the remaining four—Jauregui, Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei and Dinah Jane Hansen—learned of C’s decision to call it quits via representatives and that they’d continue onward in her absence. A few hours later Cabello released her own statement, calling bullshit on the 5H crew’s shock and expressing disappointment with how the move was announced. The next day Fifth Harmony released another statement further confirming their confusion—it’s been back and forth ever since, and tense as hell—but the gist is this: CC is out, the girls are fine, and their loyal fandom, the Harmonizers, remain devoted to both projects (and beyond: Jauregui put out a loving LGTBQ ode with Halsey, “Strangers,” Normani has begun pursuing her own solo endeavors…whatever the girls want to do, the Harmonizers are listening…and buying.) Their third studio album and first without Cabello, Fifth Harmony, confirms fan fidelity.
When artists choose to self-title albums, it’s because they want the world to know that this piece of work is their most definitive—this is who they are, thank you for listening. Fifth Harmony chose to name their third album after their group moniker to show the world that they are now the girl group they were always meant to become—it’s a shame Cabello is out of the picture, but the departure of a once-crucial member doesn’t and didn’t deter their growth. If anything, it’s adversity that fuels their fire—if you don’t believe in them, just watch ‘em go. If it becomes their swan song, it’s a solid effort—raw, eclectic, hungry—genre-defying in a way we haven’t totally heard from them before.
There are a million subtly brilliant moments on the album–“Messy” offers the girl power mission statement of “I am who I am and you don’t have to wonder” while sampling Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” It takes the cheating anthem and turns it into something much more self-reflexive, completely subverting the beloved 2000 track’s initial meaning into something distinctly feminist and deeply surprising. “He Like That” samples MC Hammer’s “Pumps and a Bump,” which has a similar resonance: these young women born from the X Factor are now making delightfully catchy and sensual pop music that expresses explicit sexual autonomy. They are women now and they are unafraid to express their femininity—besides losing Cabello, there have been no real growing pains in the 5H universe. When they started taking control of their narratives, their music followed, and their self-titled album is indicative of that maturation.
Outside of the lead single “Down,” and some production assistance from Skrillex on “Angel,” there are no guest features on the record—Fifth Harmony are truly in the market of themselves, their whole selves. It’s something of a defiant move in a radio climate predicated on collaborations (it’s rare for a solo act with a guest slot to have a sustainable No. 1—unless you’re Taylor Swift or Drake in “Hotline Bling,” it feels next to impossible). It also feels directly opposite to the route Camila Cabello’s solo journey has taken her—with the exception of “Crying in the Club,” all of her hits of late have been collaborations. In perhaps a not-so-subtle gesture, Fifth Harmony are proving they can do it all on their own. It’s too early to see if the album will debut at No. 1 but with the success of its singles—“Down” leading the Billboard Trending Chart and “Angel” debuting at No. 1—it would be surprising if it didn’t. In this case, the group is a sum greater than its parts.
The album ends with the ballad “Bridges,” the final repetitive lyric of “We build bridges / Not walls.” It feels impossible not to assign some sort of political meaning to it—the perhaps naive imagery of bringing together opposing viewpoints (the bridging) while critiquing the racist policy of building a wall on the U.S./Mexico border (in this case, a literal wall instead of the metaphorical one of distancing yourself in a relationship—it would make sense, given the group’s more progressive ideas of equality and that they possess Latinx membership). Beyond that reading and its place at the very end of the LP is a feeling of denouement directed at both Cabello and their loyal Harmonizers: even if there was—and still is—animosity, the remaining foursome are open to rebuilding and repairing. So far, it’s working. This country would be wise to do the same.
Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer living in Philadelphia. She’s a contributing editor at the Talkhouse and contributes regularly to places like Rolling Stone, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Billboard and more. She most recently held the title of Senior Correspondent at Fuse Media and before that, worked to build BuzzFeed’s music vertical.