It’s easy to liken Fifth Harmony to One Direction today, and draw comparisons between Cabello’s exit to Zayn Malik’s in March 2015. In reality, the career trajectories of the two groups look nothing alike. Whereas 1D’s first single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” stands as one of their biggest hits and launched the boy band to immediate crossover success, 5H initially struggled to latch on at Top 40 radio, and to thus engrain themselves to mainstream pop fans. Their debut album was delayed for months; they were parts of flashy pop tours, but as an opening act. The group's time on the U.S. version of The X Factor had established an impassioned fan base, but with a handful of initial singles (“Miss Movin’ On,” “Bo$$,” “Sledgehammer”) that largely underperformed, Fifth Harmony was a far cry from the arena headliners that One Direction had become in its first two years together.
Some within the music industry doubted that the girls would ever cross over; even when “Worth It,” their third single from debut album Reflection, became a surprise Top 20 hit in the summer of 2015, many viewed it as a fluke that did not guarantee stardom for the girls. But then “Work From Home” happened, and a new level of success had been unlocked: Climbing to No. 4 on the Hot 100 and dominating pop radio for months, the lead single to sophomore album 7/27 set up the group’s first international tour and another Top 10 album debut, becoming the most-viewed music video of the year on YouTube in the process. They already had a huge fan base before 2016, but this year, Fifth Harmony achieved the mainstream durability that had eluded them since their formation.
Something else was also happening — the girls began discovering and revealing who they were as a group. After Reflection introduced 5H as a kid-friendly collective exploring standard (albeit enjoyable) pop tropes, 7/27 gave the girls more control, featured more stylistic risks (a tropical house song with Fetty Wap!) and showcased more of their individual personalities and vulnerabilities. Fifth Harmony’s second outing was more boisterous, sexual, playful and personal; there were misses, but at least they were taking big swings. A few months removed from its release, 7/27 sounds like a transition from childhood to adulthood, from awkwardly stepping out on their first album to striding confidently forward on what would have been their third.
It’s often the case that a pop group will find its footing on its third album, after abiding by the tween-friendly boundaries on its debut and experiencing growing pains on its follow-up. Circling back to One Direction, the group took two albums to work out its creative kinks before settling on the classic-rock bombast of 2013’s excellent Midnight Memories. Concurrent girl group Little Mix followed the slick pop of their first two albums with the much more self-assured Get Weird last year, while *NSYNC, arguably the most successful pop group of the 21st century, figured out that they were actually more adept at R&B with third album Celebrity in 2001.
The third album is often the moment where the central idea of a pop group takes root, where the personalities of the members become fully formed and the go-to sound is established. If Cabello had stuck around for a third album, 5H3 would have followed the improbable success of the past two years and potentially taken the group to an even higher creative and commercial plateau. Maybe the hints of brassy synth-pop on “That’s My Girl” and “The Life” would have been further explored; perhaps a show-stopping ballad, which neither of their two albums contained, would have been found on their third try, or disregarded for a wholly uptempo project. Fifth Harmony could still figure these things out on its next album, but now, it will have to do so as an incomplete unit.
To be fair, there is promise in Cabello officially leaving the group — she could develop into an engaging solo artist, and the rest of the group could thrive within a new dynamic. But today, it’s worth pouring one out for what’s been lost. After years of playing the underdog, Fifth Harmony had finally come out on top in 2016, with a smash single and all of the doors that opens. With less than two weeks left in the year, the rug’s been pulled from under them once again, and another round of being counted out — this time as a quartet — will begin.
The moment that a member of a pop group decamps to go solo often comes at a natural break in action, when a punctuation mark can be placed upon their collective success. A four-and-a-half year run with the group is an accomplishment worth recognizing, yet at this point in Fifth Harmony’s time in the spotlight, Cabello’s departure feels like it has happened mid-sentence.