As the lead single from Fifth Harmony’s third album — and the group’s first release since Camila Cabello’s departure — “Down (featuring Gucci Mane)” entered the market with significant hype.
It also entered the market with important demands from music connoisseurs.
1) It needed to be sexy, modern and rhythmic-leaning.
While they often develop rabid core fanbases, pop “girl groups” and “boy bands” tend to face a stigma from the broader market. There is a perception that they skew to the cheesy, bubblegum side of mainstream music; they lack the sexy, edgy factors that make today’s biggest solo acts seem “cool.”
The stigma prevented the ridiculously popular One Direction from scoring more than a few big US radio hits, and it absolutely worked against Fifth Harmony. Singles like “Miss Movin’ On” and “Sledgehammer” were above average pop songs, but they did not seem “cool” enough to transcend the “girl group” label. Despite the group’s intense fan support, both singles hit fairly low ceilings on the pop chart — and they did not receive much love at the fresher rhythmic format.
“Worth It (featuring Kid Ink)” changed the game. It was by far the catchiest of Fifth Harmony’s singles, but its real value came from its image. With a hip-hop feature, fresh production, more mature lyrics and help from the iHeartRadio “On The Verge” program, “Worth It” seemed hip and made inroads at rhythmic radio. It actually fell short of becoming a major hit at that format, but the love it did receive greatly elevated the song’s (and group’s) status. “Worth It” was cool enough for rhythmic, and that actually made pop programmers more enthusiastic in their support.
“Work From Home (featuring Ty Dolla $ign),” the lead single from Fifth Harmony’s sophomore album “7/27,” was an even stronger, more rhythmic-friendly single. It hit #1 at rhythmic and pop radio and became a major hit in all key metrics. Follow-up “All In My Head (Flex)” was a markedly weaker song, but it still parlayed a fresh, rhythmic-leaning sound into decent chart success.
“That’s My Girl,” the final “7/27” single, represented an unfortunate regression. It was devoid of any rhythmic lean. Worse, its corny lyrics and chorus played directly into the aforementioned girl group stigma. The single predictably flopped (by the standard of recent Fifth Harmony singles).
It also cemented the importance of a rhythmic focus on the lead “5H3” track. The single needed to make music fans forget about “That’s My Girl” and remember that Fifth Harmony can make cool, sexy, club- and radio-ready hits.
2) It needed to demonstrate an increased degree of cohesion and unity.
“Down” represented more than a chance to prove Fifth Harmony could survive following Camila Cabello’s departure.
It was an opportunity to prove that the group would be better as a quartet.
Some saw Cabello as the strongest member of the group. If she stood out, it was because of her talent, charisma and vocal tone rather than a problematic aversion to the team dynamic.
Others felt that she undermined the group’s synergy. Due in part to her own antics and in part to her proportion of “solo assignments,” they believed Cabello contributed heavily to the perception of fragmentation.
Either way, her departure allowed Fifth Harmony to reassert its standing as a sisterhood. It allowed the group to reposition itself as a wholly unified team rather than as a set of solo artists connected only by context.
With “Down,” Fifth Harmony would be able to prove that what it gained in cohesion and shared vision outweighs what it lost in Cabello’s departure.
3) It needed to be disruptive.
Songs like “Worth It” and “Work From Home” proved that Fifth Harmony did not need to rely on its gimmick or built-in fanbase as a crutch. It was able to make legitimately strong music that could keep up with releases from today’s biggest hitmakers.
But could Fifth Harmony move ahead of the pack? Could it set trends instead of merely fitting in with them?
A creative, disruptive single would establish Fifth Harmony not merely as a group that belongs but as a contemporary music act that stands out.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
New single “Down” absolutely boasts rhythmic credibility. Singing over taut, modern, inviting production, Lauren Jauregui, Dinah Jane, Normani Kordei and Ally Brooke deliver their lines with confidence. Collectively, they position Fifth Harmony not as a bubblegum girl group playing dress-up but as a legitimate, fresh superstar act. Effortlessly sexy and unquestionably infectious, “Down” is certainly more “Work From Home” than “That’s My Girl.”
While not groundbreaking, Gucci Mane’s featured hip-hop verse flows well and feels organic. Instead of coming across like a tacky bid for rhythmic and urban support, it feels like a natural (and valuable) break in the song.
“Down” is also rich with cohesion. Whereas Fifth Harmony sounded like a “collective” on many of its past singles, it sounds like a unified group on “Down.” The song flows seamlessly from member to member, and all feel like they are on the same team. They seem aligned by a single spirit. Accepting that the sum is greater than the parts, none tries to go into business for herself.
Indeed, “Down” takes the idea of cohesion very seriously — perhaps even too seriously. Thanks to their vocal performances and the production on the track, the four voices blend together to a greater degree than they did on many past 5H songs. Cabello’s voice may have (whether as a compliment or insult) been viewed as the most distinctive on the previous two Fifth Harmony albums, but all of the members demonstrated unique vocal tones and personalities. “Down” finds their quirks muted and their voices blending together to a far greater degree.
On the one hand, the blending increases the perception of unity. It absolutely cements the idea of a “sisterhood” between the remaining four members.
On the other hand, individuality has also been an asset for Fifth Harmony. Individuality helps communicate personality, and personality helps win fans.
The truth is that both perspectives are right. Even though it invited criticism, the more individualistic approach helped Fifth Harmony connect with fans to the extent that it did. It helped create so much passionate not only for the group but for the individual women in the group. The hope is that other songs on the album will better showcase some of the members’ individual quirks, strengths and tendencies.
But this particular single really needed to be about unification. It needed to be about ensuring fans that Lauren, Ally, Dinah and Normani are not simply still committed to Fifth Harmony but equally proud to be part of the group. It needed to position Fifth Harmony as a group rejuvenated by its shared vision and undeniable chemistry.
It succeeds on that front.
“Down” does, however, miss the mark when it comes to “disruption.” It is a single that competently plays the game; it does not change it.
Some have noticed a similarity between its chorus and that of Terror Jr’s “Come First.” Nearly all listeners have noted similarities between “Down” and Fifth Harmony’s own “Work From Home” (surely owed to the fact that their production and writing teams are nearly identical).
Coupled with the song’s general vibe, the comparisons undermine any suggestion that the song is disruptive. It is familiar territory.
The point, however, is that it is strong territory. Fifth Harmony, for all the drama and occasional criticism, continues to make great music. It continues to properly channel the strength of its members.
Is “Down” as strong as “Work From Home”? Absolutely not. The paused chorus is less catchy, and the lyrical approach is nowhere near as memorable as the “work from home” wordplay.
But “Down” absolutely fits into a music marketplace that made “Work From Home” a hit. It absolutely cements the idea that Fifth Harmony makes music that belongs on the radio, in the club and at the top of key Spotify playlists.
In pairing its modern sound with a newly realized degree of cohesion, “Down” represents a very promising start to Fifth Harmony’s third album era.