TIME Music

Listen to Rihanna Collect Her Debt on a Swaggering New Single

Roc Nation

The singer follows up the light and lovely "FourFiveSeconds" with the woozy urban banger "Bitch Better Have My Money"

Even in relatively quiet years, Rihanna casts a wide shadow over the world of pop music. The depth of her catalogue of hits is almost unrivaled, with 26 landing in the top 10 in the last decade alone, and she’s sharpened the tools she uses to create them to the finest possible points: a voice that’s flexible enough to fit into any genre, a preternatural sense for sounds and trends ready for a bigger stage, and a devil-may-care je ne sais quoi that resonates with young people in a way many of her contemporaries can’t manage. She’s been dangling her upcoming eighth studio album, widely known as R8, above the heads of fans and label executives for about a year at this point, and she’s just premiered the second single, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” on radio stations across America.

It’s a world away from the gospel-tinged campfire folk of the album’s first single, Kanye West/Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFiveSeconds.” This one is hypnotic, thudding, and confident, but the core’s the same: her voice, which seems to be reaching new heights. Here she’s strident and percussive, hammering out the hook with abandon; it’s surely only a matter of time until Vine’s littered with inspired, barking debt collectors. R8 is on the horizon.

Read next: Get Ready to Whistle Along to Hilary Duff’s New Single

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Why Zayn Malik Has the Makings of a Great Solo Star

16th NRJ Music Awards - Red Carpet Arrivals
Pascal Le Segretain—Getty Images Zayn Malik attends the NRJ Music Awards on Dec. 13, 2014 in Cannes, France.

It's not yet clear what Malik's departure will mean for One Direction—but on his own, he could forge an impressive career

If you found yourself anywhere near a computer or smartphone early Wednesday afternoon—any device with the ability to access Twitter, really—you could hear the muffled wailing of pop fans and cute boy enthusiasts the world over: Zayn Malik, the one with the smoky voice and the perfect hair, announced that he was leaving One Direction, thus rendering the band a foursome. And while that grieving process shouldn’t be compromised in any way, shape, or form, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what Malik’s departure is going to mean for the future of the band, and what his own future as a recording artist might hold.

In the four years since their debut album, 2011’s Up All Night, One Direction have transformed from a ragtag band of imps with more promise than vocal talent into a group of tonally distinct, creatively ambitious young men with appetites and attitudes. To these ears, Malik was at the core of that evolution: he was the band’s strongest and most readily identifiable singer, his voice coloured by a little musk and a pinch of salt. On the band’s latest album, last year’s very strong Four, he led off highlights like the tender “Night Changes” (a song rendered rather poignant if you pretend it’s about the band breaking up!) and anchored the middle of the lusty, crackling “No Control.”

Malik may have a considerable sonic presence on the band’s best and recent work, but he hasn’t had a major hand in their shift towards taking charge of their songwriting. Former bandmates Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Harry Styles have stepped up the magnitude of their contributions; between the three of them, they were credited with writing all but four of the sixteen tracks that made up Four‘s deluxe incarnation. Malik is only ever credited in tandem with other bandmates, and has only four such credits on the album. He may have influenced the band in other intangible ways, ones that don’t show up in any formal capacity—writing and production credits are just one set of windows into the creative process—but it feels safe to suggest that the band will continue to churn out stadium-ready power-pop, even in his absence. The texture and sensuality he lent to their vocal arrangements will be missed, but they can carry on without him.

His future as an artist in his own right is much less certain. To hear Malik tell it, he’ll be taking an indefinite leave from the spotlight—in his statement, he said that “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time”—but it’s still fun to speculate about the music he could make when he decides to return. He’s talked about how he listened exclusively to R&B and hip-hop before joining the band, and his voice is well suited to the shadow and sinew that characterizes the sounds of those genres today. It’s not hard to imagine him emulating Nick Jonas’ recent embrace of lithe, lascivious funk, or dirtying up Sam Smith’s pristine pop-soul; if a move were to come out of left field, he could pair well with avant-pop auteurs like Dev Hynes or Jamie xx, or vocalists like Jessie Ware.

He’s still only 22, and his tour of duty with the world’s biggest boy band will earn him plenty of coverage when he decides to make his next move. For now, there’s only one thing to say: goodbye, Zayn. We’ll always have those midnight memories.

TIME Music

Review: Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit Makes Listlessness Vital

Courtney Barnett
Mom + Pop Music

Even her minor efforts glow and sparkle with attitude, intelligence and good humor

Courtney Barnett likes to write songs that drift and meander, smirking and sardonic, until they snap into impressive focus. When you stumble into one of those moments without expecting it, you’ll find yourself remembering it later with unusual clarity. On her impressive debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, the Melbourne singer-songwriter shows herself to be possessed of uncommon wit and incisiveness; she’s come to serve as an avatar for a generation of young people with uncertain futures, iffy finances and one tentative foot into the arena of adulthood.

Barnett’s breakout single, 2013’s “Avant Gardener,” was a rambling journey from her backyard garden to the back of an ambulance, thanks to either a panic attack or a fit of allergies; even as she was being ferried to an emergency room, she couldn’t keep herself from cracking wise about the potential hospital bills and her inability to handle a bong. It’s not an intense or propulsive song by any means, but it manages to pick up steam off the strength of its lyrics, crackling and word-drunk. Like a rapper capping off a freestyle or an author cranking out paragraphs in the zone, you can feel Barnett deriving strength from every wry observation and piece of wordplay. She has a way of making listlessness feel vital.

Her first album-length release, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, was really just two smaller releases bundled together, and so Sometimes I Sit and Think… is her true debut. It builds on the promise of her early work and yanks it up a couple notches, with writing that’s funnier and more poignant than ever and music that’s strong enough to match. Barnett is an avowed fan of bands like Pavement and the Modern Lovers, and their influence is subtly exerted throughout the album — “Small Poppies” in particular sounds like the kind of paranoid, smoked out jam Stephen Malkmus could churn out with one hand circa Wowee Zowee — but she’s really participating in a larger tradition of wordy, whip-smart rock bands, one starting somewhere around the Kinks. Her guitar melodies are sharp and bright, but make no mistake: the focus is on her voice and words, the twin engines that drive her compositions. Spending time with any of these songs is like meeting someone new at work or a bar and finding yourself immediately blown away by the heat radiating from their brain, the speed with which their thoughts unfurl, the intensity of their convictions.

There’s something to love in almost all of Sometimes I Sit and Think…, but single “Depreston” has earned a great share of the plaudits directed towards the album, and rightfully so: it’s the best example of the way Barnett can pull off a hairpin turn with just a line or two. She does it there with a handful of trinkets and a handrail in a shower, transforming a gentle short story about a move away from rapid gentrification into a heartbreaking meditation on mortality and the size of the world. By the time she’s repeating the line, “If you’ve got a / spare half a million / you could knock it down / and start rebuilding,” you find yourself mourning the loves and losses of a woman without a name, one who lives only in a song. It’s utterly devastating, and yet the palate cleanser that comes after “Depreston” is even more lovable. That’s “Aqua Profunda!,” a two minute blast from a municipal pool that finds Barnett nearly drowning because she’s trying to impress a looker in the next lane over. It’s funnier than it sounds; in fact, it’s uproarious, dense with quotable quips and pieces of personality, with shiny riffs buzzing like static off a blanket. (The best line, tossed off like loose change: “I sunk like a stone / like a first owner’s home loan.”) This is why Barnett’s made one of the strongest albums of the year: even her minor efforts glow and sparkle with attitude, intelligence, and good humor.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly Is an Angst-Filled Anthem for Blackness

Shaun White's Air And Style Music Festival
Scott Dudelson—Getty Images Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 21, 2015

The rapper's third album issues challenging questions about black identity and leadership

Kendrick Lamar’s rapid ascent to a place near hip-hop’s creative and commercial peak can be traced to his command of three key skills:

1. On a purely technical level, he’s one of the most exciting rappers of his generation, possessed of both impressive agility and the capacity for tremendous force. When he’s on the mic, beats are less constraints than canvases — he doodles on and around them with abandon.

2. He’s fearless, a quality that frequently manifests itself in the sound and effect of his voice: it cracks and spits, carries feeble melodies, bears the weight of rich stories.

3. As a narrative sculptor, he’s fearsome, stitching together fully realized characters, lived-in locations and generational angst into snapshots of life for the young, black and questioning.

All three are in full effect on Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which had been scheduled for release on March 23, but dropped early, the night of March 15. While the album’s extreme density warrants plenty of digestion time, it’s apparent from the first few listens that it’s worthy of the same sort of praise won by its predecessor, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.

GKMC was so thick and compelling it earned the subtitle “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” A crackling, tense journey from the streets of his beloved Compton, Calif., to a throne somewhere high above the city — part thriller, part romance, part introspective diary entry — it managed to balance oodles of exposition and plot work with radio-friendly singles and jazzy, intricate composition.

Sonically, Lamar veers in a more contemplative direction. Butterfly boasts a warm, murky stew pulled from the last several decades of compassionate, inventive black music: the 1970s soul and funk of Stevie Wonder and George Clinton’s Funkadelic; the descendant G-funk of mentor Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg; the weird and technically audacious work of the Soulquarians at the turn of the millennium. The instrumentation is live and hyperkinetic, thanks to contributors such as bass virtuoso Thundercat and a crew of other crack session musicians. The focus is on atmosphere rather than hooks or lead melodies.

Lyrically, Butterfly is another plot-centric, thematically complex release. Surprisingly, it parallels the last few releases from Lamar’s rival and sometime nemesis Drake: both artists have been transformed by sudden fame, and their music reflects the trials and joys of their upward trajectory. But while Drake has emerged from superstardom calcified, Lamar questions whether he should leverage his celebrity to become a standard bearer for blackness. The inquiry comes to define the album: How can you fight for love on behalf of your people when you can barely find a reason to love yourself?

The answer doesn’t come easy, and Lamar struggles to uncover it even as he rails against the demons and constraints that make his journey more difficult. He takes them on with characteristic ferocity and incisiveness: alcohol, depression, systemic racism, police brutality. The album climaxes with an imagined conversation with the late legend Tupac Shakur — his responses sampled from a 1994 interview Shakur gave to a Swedish radio host — in which Lamar grapples with the weight of black leadership and galvanization, a responsibility he claims to inherit from a range of black luminaries, from Nelson Mandela to Michael Jackson. It’s certainly a bold gambit, but it’s also a good example of his blinding, mighty ambition. Lamar wants nothing less than greatness, and To Pimp a Butterfly is yet another step forward on that path.

TIME Music

Review: Rebel Heart Is Madonna’s Most Consistent Album in a Decade

Because nobody can poke fun at Madonna like Madonna

The last decade of Madonna’s career is a testament to the power of thin lines: an inch of slippage, and even the most venerated and groundbreaking artists can tumble from pop’s vanguard to a zone somewhere in the back, fighting to catch up. After the commercial and critical debacle that was 2003’s American Life, she temporarily stepped out of the pop arms race, traveling backwards in time to revisit her days as a Lower East Side disco queen with Confessions on a Dance Floor. As a result, she regained some momentum. But when she attempted to rejoin the present with the chunky, rhythmically dense Hard Candy and cold, shiny EDM of MDNA, she received criticism that was disproportionate to the quality of the product. Rather than being celebrated for working hard to stay contemporary after nearly three decades of work, she was called desperate and calculating, assertions that often stunk of sexism. (Try to find examples of similar criticisms being leveled at Giorgio Moroder, or Nile Rodgers, or Paul McCartney.)

It was a reaction that disregarded the fact that she was simply doing what she’d done for every album she’d ever released: cherry-picking collaborators with the relevance and skill to match her songwriting and nose for trends, and attempting to forge a sort of synergy. But the narrative had been set, and handfuls of good songs — like Hard Candy’s “She’s Not Me,” a funky, strobe-lit romp that beat Daft Punk to the nü-Chic punch — were doomed to languish in relative obscurity. For a moment, it seemed like Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album, was going to be submarined for similarly non-musical reasons. When a huge batch of demos and sketches leaked at the end of 2014, she went nuts in response, comparing the leaks to “artistic rape” and “terrorism.” Given all the turmoil, it’s impressive — and a little surprising — that the final product is her most consistent album in a decade, and one that renders any hypothetical “bid for continued relevance” moot by remaining proudly scattershot. It’s an album that places more emphasis on Madonna the person than Madonna the sonic visionary, and it benefits as a result.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s completely eschewed the bleeding edge. About half of Rebel Heart lands somewhere between “contemporary” and “innovative,” with songs that evoke the frenetic uncanny valley pop of PC Music, Kanye West’s serrated and menacing Yeezus and Avicii’s country-EDM fusion. (West and Avicii both appear on the album via writing and production credits; Diplo, enigmatic UK producer Sophie, and indie darling Ariel Rechtshaid are also among the small army of collaborators.) Single “Bitch I’m Madonna” manages to somehow pull from all three, and the result is a glorious mess, a whirlwind of unexpected texture and silly sound. But staying ahead of the curve isn’t the album’s ultimate goal, and there are just as many songs that land with surprising delicacy: simple folk guitars, churchy piano melodies, and arrangements that recall the soft, intimate sweep of 1994’s underrated Bedtime Stories. The album presents two faces, neither of which are designed to stand alone: the #1 Baddest Bitch out for sex and blood (“the Rebel”) and the vulnerable veteran reflecting on love, life, and difficult choices (“the Heart”). And while the songs in the former group are great fun, because nobody can poke fun at Madonna like Madonna — the repeated snarl of “Bitch, get off my pole” on the lurid “Holy Water” is funnier than every Twitter joke about her tumble at the BRIT Awards put together — the latter ones are the true stunners.

They’re rich in the same reckoning with faith, sacrilege, and love that have marked Madonna’s work for three decades, but there’s a new and palpable fatigue to the writing and performance. Her voice sounds great, light and a little worn around the edges; it bears the weight of a full love, of love won and lost, real pain and real joy. On highlights like the gentle “Joan of Arc” and weightless fantasy “Body Shop,” she sounds a little like a mother tucking into an old story at the kitchen table, running through the decisions she’s made and the paths she could’ve taken: her years of purposeful provocation, the isolation that stems from defiance, the fight to accept imperfections within yourself. There are albums where it’s been difficult to remember that Madonna is a real person and not just a figurehead, a concept, a lightning rod. That’s not the case with Rebel Heart: it has surprising gravity, and doubles as a portrait of a lion approaching the winter of a career without precedent. It’s the realest, and the best, Madonna has sounded in quite some time.

Read next: The Time Madonna Almost Quit Music for Good

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TIME Music

Listen to Kanye West’s New Single ‘All Day’

It's dark, triumphant and provocative

After months of false starts and exponentially increasing hype — interview quips, leaked demos, a performance at the Brit Awards last week backed by dozens of UK henchmen and a mighty flamethrower — Kanye West is releasing the official version of “All Day,” the lead single from his upcoming new album So Help Me God. Working with contributions from stylish Brooklyn polymath Theophilus London and rising, gritty Minnesotan Allan Kingdom, Kanye splits the difference between the abrasiveness and dark colors of 2013’s Yeezus and his gift for lyrical hooks and radio-friendly structure. It’s not hard to imagine the song’s chorus, and its titular bark, streaming from open car windows around the country by rush hour this evening. (The closing minute, a bizarre stew of cheery whistling and frenzied electronics, seems less likely to land on top 40 playlists.)

Of course, “All Day” is still ripe with the sort of incisive statements about class and race that have marked Kanye’s work from the beginning. Even grandstanding, throwaway lines are wrapped in barbed wire, like his hollered proclamation that, “Like a light-skinned slave boy / we in the motherf—king house!” If this really is “cookout music,” it’s cookout music that demands your attention. So Help Me God still doesn’t have a release date, but with an official single on the books and a promotional machine roaring to life, the release of even more new Kanye West music seems imminent.

Read next: Listen to Haim and M83’s New Song for the Insurgent Soundtrack

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Review: Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late Marks a Transitional Moment

Cash Money Records

It's an invitation back into the dark lanes, private vehicles, and smoky clubs that make up Drake's world

The hints had been dropping like flies for weeks, even months. Whether springing from NBA basketball players or rap journalism godheads, it was clear that Drake had new music in the pipeline — a renewed full-force assault on the public consciousness after a relatively sleepy 2014. All of the cryptic Instagram posts, pinhole leaks, and rumors climaxed in a flurry of activity yesterday, a stream of appearances and releases that neatly framed his long-running cold war with Kanye West: An atmospheric short film called Jungle was released in the early morning featuring passages of new music, a conspicuous absence at West’s unveiling of his latest exploits in the world of fashion (and some new music of his own), an appearance at West’s Roc City Classic performance where he waltzed in like a plebeian and mingled with writers and fans. And an hour before midnight, the cherry on top: a new collection of songs on iTunes, 17 tracks stretching over an hour in length, called If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. You could apply the same title to every rushed review that’s going to be posted today, thrown together by some fatigued writer who’s spent their early morning hours trying to decipher every new sample and potential petty diss.

The first question this batch of new music demands has to do with its nature. At this early juncture, nobody can agree on how this release should be classified. Is this a mixtape, as most of the pre-release scuttlebutt suggested? Is this an album, something with a little more aesthetic gravitas and conceptual heft, a statement justifying an album-level price? Is it some sort of hybrid conspiracy engine, a tossed together collection of loose C-sides and sketches designed to free Drake from his deal with Birdman’s Cash Money Records? (This is a widespread theory given the personnel drama currently surrounding the label, much of it swirling around Drake’s mentor/guardian angel Lil Wayne.) Stripped of the shadowy machination angle, the hybrid concept seems likeliest. Drake isn’t a notorious archivist, but he’s made a habit of releasing non-album tracks before each of his last two major, official releases; it’s not infeasible that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is a plus-sized collection of said tracks, given a little more legitimacy by a price tag. (He released a set of three just last fall, in an apparent effort to beat some small-time hackers to the punch.)

MORE Watch Drake Sing “Let It Go” as Manny Pacquiao

It’s also common knowledge that Drake has already picked out a title for his next official full-length, Views From the 6, and it seems unlikely that he would completely abandon the concept for the sake of a surprise release one February night. It’s a title and idea that holds tremendous importance for him, and it’s not hard to see why: if anything defines Drake it’s his commitment to his hometown of Toronto, as both a native son and now an ambassador. He places tremendous value on the perspective that growing up in the city has granted him, and on his position as its reigning boy-king. Whatever Views From the 6 becomes, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s going to be accompanied by much greater fanfare, by considerable pomp and circumstance.

And this analysis is completely divorced from the musical and emotional characteristics of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, all of which scream “transitional moment.” With each new major full-length, Drake has pushed through major leaps in maturity and technical skill and shifts in his artistic sensibility. Take Care took the amateurish appeal and grabs for legitimacy of Thank Me Later and blew it to smithereens, opting instead for baroque flourishes and stylistic breadth; after grabbing the sceptre with that album, follow up Nothing Was the Same was colder, more paranoid, stripped down to sinew rather than drunk and bloated on excess. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late doubles down on the latter movement: it’s positively icy, continually unnerved, an extrapolation of the grimmest moments on its predecessor.

DRAKE ~ JUNGLE from OctobersVeryOwn on Vimeo.

Its rare moments of warmth, like penultimate track “Jungle,” melt and seem to throw off heat because everything around them is frosted. If Nothing Was the Same was a glimpse at an artist just starting to realize the weight of the crown on his head, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late captures a monarch compromised by the demands of his kingdom: the pressure to stay relevant, the hordes of fake friends and snakes aiming daggers at his back, the struggle to find anyone true to share in your success. (And looming above it all, a genuine anger that anyone would have the audacity to challenge your reign.) There are recurring sonic maneuvers that tell you everything you need to know about this tape’s relationship to Drake’s back catalogue, most notably the beat switches scattered throughout: used on Nothing Was the Same to signify moments of triumph or joy, here the effect is like driving through a tunnel and emerging under night sky. The scenery has changed, but the darkness is still palpable.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late isn’t a transformative release, then, but that’s not a statement about its quality. This is an hour of music that’s often thrilling, occasionally transcendent, and always uncompromising when it comes to its creator’s vision of contemporary hip-hop. At this point, Drake’s influence on the genre is so pervasive — he lives in every dewy piano melody, every tone and texture with rounded edges, every moment of vulnerability or emotion — that it’s easy to take his skill for granted. There are perhaps only three artists working with this singular sort of taste, this ability to bend the confines of a genre to their will. Even on a record where the presence of his usual consigliere Noah “40” Shebib is diminished, each arrangement employs the same palette and achieves a startling thematic consistency. In a purely technical sense, Drake is far gone from the mediocre-to-abysmal flow he displayed on early mixtapes and Thank Me Later; here, he rips through dozens of different patterns, plays with pitch and dynamics like it’s second nature, references flows made famous by his contemporaries and adapts them for his use. He makes himself part of the continuous conversation and exchange of ideas that helps to make hip-hop volatile and exciting. When everything clicks together, the results are absolutely invigorating. The new Toronto anthem “Know Yourself” snaps together like tiny pieces in a music box and ignites behind the chant, “I was running through the 6 / with my woes,” and PARTYNEXTDOOR feature “Preach” takes the muted throb of the xx and ends up flipping it into a genuine club candidate, like a caffeinated Burial composition in miniature.

Because of the rich myth and personalities that are already swirling around If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, many people will be tempted to spend more time focusing on the recent past and future than on the music itself. How long has this been planned? Will Drake release another album this year, one that’s more of an authoritative statement than this? Did he “win” by stealing Kanye’s thunder and burying his new material under an avalanche of frenzied tweets and blog posts? Just how many petty shots at Yeezus and his inner circle did he lick off on delirious closer “6PM in New York?” But this release deserves more than that, regardless of its ultimate place in Drake’s year or discography. It’s new music from a transformative, uniquely talented, and influential artist operating at the peak of his powers — an illustrator nonpareil opening one more door to the dark lanes, private vehicles, and smoky clubs that make up his world.

Read next: Watch Drake, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga Read Mean Tweets About Themselves

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TIME Music

Review: Fifth Harmony’s Reflection Has Many Layers

Fifth Harmony
Epic Records

Reflection covers a surprising amount of stylistic ground

It’s hard to imagine the existence of American girl group Fifth Harmony without the influence of their male British predecessors, Nickelback fans/tousled imps One Direction. The girls mirror the boys in many ways, from creation myth to their purposeful cultivation of camaraderie. Like One Direction, Fifth Harmony was cobbled together from a gaggle of unexceptional soloists on The X Factor by impresario Simon Cowell; like One Direction, they ultimately finished in third place, and have flourished despite leaving the competition without a victory. And like One Direction, the bonds between each member are key to the group’s image and songwriting. Companionship, loyalty, trustworthiness, positivity: they’re core values for the young women of Fifth Harmony, and they run like veins through the great majority of their recorded output to date.

Reflection is Fifth Harmony’s debut full-length — an EP, the sprightly Better Together, came out in October 2013 supporting debut single “Miss Movin’ On” — and it covers a surprising amount of stylistic ground. This is by no means an an album standing at the vanguard of contemporary pop and R&B, but it doesn’t need to be: four of the group’s five members are still teenagers, after all, and it’s perfectly natural that they’ve spent their first full album together mimicking recent high points in their favorite genres. More importantly, they’re agile, and have an intuitive understanding of how their differences in vocal texture and range can impact their songs by introducing surprise and tension. Over the course of the album, the group moves from percussive, horn-stabbed black pop (excellent lead single “BO$$”) to squelching, simple knockoffs of producer DJ Mustard’s signature sound (“Top Down,” the title track) to more traditional piano-led R&B (“Everlasting Love,” “We Know”), and capably handles each new style. There are a few guest verses that feel tacked on to appease commercial interests, but they’re ultimately unnecessary; when given the chance, it’s obvious that the girls are comfortable with hip-hop, with the Beyoncé-esque snarl and purr of “Reflection” serving as ample proof.

Like a kids’ movie that’s been stuffed with subliminal jokes for parents, Reflection is an album with multiple layers. Younger, less knowledgeable fans will enjoy the melodies and singing on their own merit, and savvier listeners will chuckle at the obvious sonic references and flashes of inspiration. Tyga feature “Like Mariah” is a good example, with novice listeners getting a sunny slice of pop-R&B and veterans smiling at the “Always Be My Baby” sample that anchors the song.

Reflection is certainly enjoyable on a purely musical level, but Fifth Harmony’s perspective and positivity is often even more exciting. This is a group that’s funny, self-assured, and inspiring in their best moments. The aforementioned “BO$$” is a good starting point, and an example of the power of representation: over punchy horns and a kinetic rhythmic tapestry, five young women of color demand worthy partners, spell out their confidence, and shout out role models like Michelle Obama and Oprah. It’s a vital, palpably youthful song — how many other groups could get away with referencing the Nae Nae and using “bae” without looking like dorks? — but that doesn’t undermine the respect they deserve. Throughout Reflection, men are portrayed as nuisances or problems to be tackled together rather than opportunities for competition or sources of conflict; at their best, they’re equal partners in romantic relationships and friendships. On “Worth It,” the girls use the chorus to repeatedly re-affirm their self-worth; on “Suga Mama,” they’re affectionate but unwilling to fund their deadbeat boyfriends’ lavish lifestyles. There’s a radiant self-love and genuine closeness bursting from the album, whether through the positive body image promotion on “Them Girls Be Like” or the circling of wagons on vocal showcase “We Know.” And there’s no better peak than mission statement “Reflection,” which flips the script on a sultry ode to a partner into a hilarious, fierce celebration.

It’s not a stretch to state that with a little more work and personal growth, Fifth Harmony can mature into the kind of role models — both musical and social — that have so profoundly impacted their work to date. The girls have plenty of time to find a distinct musical identity, but it’s clear from Reflection that they have more important pieces in place: precision, agility and a strong sense of self.

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