Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Ryan Middleton chat about Fifth Harmony's new album Reflection. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: Much like my fondness for boy bands, I have a soft spot for girl groups, which is why I'm sort of stoked that Fifth Harmony's debut album Reflection has finally dropped after way too many years and a fair share of album delays. Their fans, known as Harmonizers (and they're intense) are stoked about the release of this album, but does it live up to the hype?
Like most pop albums like this, my thought is kind of. It's really inconsistent. The highs (read: the singles) are bona fide #bangerz. But there also seems like a lot of filler here. Thoughts?
Kyle Dowling: Unsurprisingly, I've never listened to Fifth Harmony before this Junk Mail. After a listen, I would say Carolyn's thought is pretty accurate. While not being a record I'd choose to listen to outside of here, I will say that Reflection has some pretty standout tracks. There's no doubt that there is a talent within this group, and I think fans are going to look at this album in a very favorable way.
Ryan Middleton: Though I may not have the same fondness for boy bands as you Carolyn, I do have a weak spot for a catchy hook and well-produced beat. Fifth Harmony are the first of their type as a prominent girl group in a decade and with that comes a lot of pressure to carry that storied pop tradition. Reflection represents their first step as girl group flag-bearers, something they acknowledge throughout the album with odes to their influences and predecessors.
CM: I always have mixed feelings about pop culture references in pop music. On one hand, constantly saying you're a boss like Michelle Obama or Beyonce really puts this album in 2015. On the other hand, I feel like the constant mentions of strong women in pop culture were well executed on Reflection, so I can't be mad at it. Obviously, the biggest "offenders" of this are "BO$$," "Like Mariah" and "Brave Honest Beautiful" with Meghan Trainor. Two of those songs use these women strictly for female empowerment, and that's always been a great purpose of girl groups in the last 20 years (thanks, Spice Girls!). So, I can get behind this.
KD: I would agree. The pop culture references on Reflection really didn't bother me. I thought it actually added quite a bit to the songs. None of it seemed forced, which is pretty impressive in my opinion. Even the sampling on "Like Mariah" was done rather well. I wonder if they went into that part realizing that if done incorrectly it could sound somewhat cheesy. If they did, it was a great execution. If not, still a job well done!
RM: I think the album is at its best when the group shows the most confidence and uses other role models as a way empowers others as in "BO$$" and "Brave Honest Beautiful." Pop culture references can go awry like in "Them Girls Be Like" referencing posting pictures on Instagram, "Do you ever post your pics with no filter / Hashtag I woke up like this too," but when they stick to pop icons, it fits with the overall theme of the album and elevates the songwriting to the upper echelon of pop.
Kyle you mentioned the sampling on "Like Mariah" -- she personally came out as a fan of the track, a huge honor for the group. What do you guys think of the sampling in the song and the diversity of genres throughout the album?
CM: "Them Girls Be Like" makes me so angry. On an album filled with female empowerment anthems, we have this? If it's a joke, which it might be, it's totally lost on me. I feel like "Them Girls Be Like" is a slightly more accessible "#SELFIE," and nobody wants or needs that. Michelle Obama, Madonna and Beyonce may be current references, but they're also timeless icons. Will we still be Instagramming photos and texting emojis in 10 years? I don't know. But that song is garbage and dated.
I have mixed feelings about "Like Mariah." I think the sampling was done well and I love the tribute to the major #diva and vocal powerhouse that is Mariah Carey. Now, given, none of these girls can sing like Carey can (but very, very few can). So, that kind of loses me. They sound like they're straining for high notes in the chorus, which Carey never did in her heyday.
The sampling and blend of genres on this album works for me. It has its pure pop tracks ("Sledgehammer"), the R&B jams ("Worth It") and dance, club-friendly tracks ("Body Rock"). It all feels naturally and nothing really jars me or sticks out as "Why would this be on a 5H album?"
KD: I think the sampling worked really well on that track. It's not easy taking on a tune from someone like Mariah Carey, and not just because she seems rather unlikable. As Carolyn mentioned, there simply are not many people out there who can sing like Carey can, so it was definitely a challenge. With that, I think they hit it out of the park.
I can understand your point about "Them Girls Be Like." It was definitely a song I could have done without. "Do you ever post your pics with no filter / Hashtag I woke up like this too"-- I hate that Instagram has made its way into song lyrics.
RM: I feel like its a little mean to hit her while she's down, but with the way Mariah has been singing lately, 5H are the ones doing it better in the present.
The album does well to cater to different audiences, creating thoughtful pop songs that deliver a powerful message of female empowerment like Bo$, while also providing the carefree pop anthems that will be sung by teenage girls into their brushes around the world for months to come. They don't hit on every attempt, but there is impressive diversity in their ability to deliver across many different styles of pop, while also slowing it down to flex their vocal talents for some crooning R&B in tracks like "We Know."
The production is arguably as important as the singing and lyrics on a pop album like this. What are your thoughts? When you have superstars like Dr. Luke, J.R Rotem and Stargate providing production, hits are guaranteed.
CM: I'm not really surprised that Fifth Harmony worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. They also teamed up with Meghan Trainor for a few singles, and we know that chick can write some major hits. The glitzy, Swedish pop elements have already helped to give 5H the biggest hit of their career thus far, with "Sledgehammer." And that song really is a great example of what a girl group can do. Everything about it is perfectly crafted. It's so shiny, too, if that makes any sense.
KD: It makes sense. And I'd have to agree with Ryan in that they may not hit on every try (as we mentioned with "Them Girls Be Like"), but the effort and ability to cover a wide variety of pop is undoubtedly there. Aside from the aforementioned song, which tracks didn't do it for you guys? I'd have to include "We Know" in there. I found it to be a tad boring in comparison to the other ones on Reflection.
RM: I found the production to be overall very solid work. I like the word shiny. It was flashy and helped create danceable, catchy hooks, though some of the productions lacked originality and seemed to mimic other contemporary hits of today, like the horns on "Worth It" and "Top Down" owe credit to Jason DeRulo's "Talk Dirty". Ironically enough, "BO$$", which also has horns, calls upon the same producer Ricky Reed as "Talk Dirty." "This Is How We Roll" sounded cheap and dated, shocking for a Dr. Luke and Cirkut production, but almost comes off as a Black Eyed Peas "The Time (Dirty Bit)" leftover.
I am somewhat indifferent to "We Know." It is a solid attempt at a slow jam, but the lyrics should be stronger for a song like that. The two songs that will immediately get skipped are "This Is How We Roll" and the aforementioned "Them Girls Be Like," but otherwise each track does well at what it intends to do.
CM: My thoughts almost exactly. "Worth It" is pretty sizzling, I like the deep harmonies and the edge that the song gives off, but then I also definitely get the "Talk Dirty" vibes. Not like the saxophone is any stranger to 2010s pop music, but when there was just a massive hit with the instrument, anything else is going to feel like a rip-off, especially with the Eastern vibes and rap verse that are also given in "Worth It." I like that song, though. No real complaints. It's got that girl power thing and even if it's not the most original pop song, I think it's insanely catchy, as well.
And I don't know why any producer would want to mimic will.i.am's beats, but "This Is How We Roll" sounded remarkably like "The Time (Dirty Bit)" and will.i.am's terrible solo single with Justin Bieber "#THATPOWER." Mix that with a song title ripped from a Florida Georgia Line song, and I'm out. Vomit.
Those are the main offending songs. I think the second half of the album until the bonus track "Brave Honest Beautiful" is pretty forgettable, but the top half is fire.
What were some highlights for you guys?
KD: I also really enjoyed the top of the album. "Top Down" was a great track to kick it off. From the get go it sets the listener up for a party. "Worth It" definitely sizzles, and I don't want to overlook "This is How We Roll." While the chorus is arguably simple, the rest of the song really turns it up for me.
RM: The top half of the album was high energy pop and it where the majority of the hits will come from. "BO$$," "Top Down," and "Worth It" will be among the tracks that leave a lasting legacy for the group on this album, but looking further down, tracks like "Suga Mama" stand out with its shimmering 808s and hints of Australian electronic music, and then the strong songwriting by Meghan Trainor on "Brave Honest Beautiful" caps off the album on a high note.
CM: Yeah, those first four songs are all hits in my book. I love how "Top Down" opens up the album with tons of sass and a banging beat. it's very declarative and strong right out the gate, and I love that. And I can't speak the praises of "Sledgehammer" enough.
I think it's interesting that you like "Suga Mama" so much. That song felt a little flat to me, but I'm not a huge fan of that blend of R&B and EDM, so it makes sense that I wouldn't love that song.
KD: I think the Harmonizers are going to really dig Reflection. Despite being top-heavy, this album definitely has some gems that'll deliver it the title of being a success. It appears safe to say that the group took some serious risks here - sampling Mariah Carey and calling out a number of pop culture references - but it seems to have all paid off in the end.
CM: Indeed, after years of waiting. Reflection mostly delivered, though the fact that it's a mixed album shouldn't be left out. There's filler, there are straight up bad tracks. But, when this album shines, it really brings its A-game. There are few gems out there as shiny as "Sledgehammer" and the funkiness of "Worth It" and "Top Down" cannot be forgotten. Add in some keen pop culture references, and you have a good debut from these chicks.
RM: As a first LP, Reflection is a success. Fifth Harmony show they are able to conquer the radio-friendly anthems that will elevate them to superstar level, but also have a more thoughtful side that empowers women. It may be a little top heavy, but the A-list tracks carry those that may not stand the test of time. The production is sleek, vocals well-executed and choice pop culture references pack an extra punch to the album.
The girl group is officially back and we can thank Fifth Harmony for it.