Epic Records

“You’re never guaranteed success,” Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei tells Fuse, “especially in the music industry. It’s pretty unpredictable—just like anything in life. And sometimes, you need to take a different approach, as a creative artist.”

Kordei is talking about Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home,” a sleek cavalcade of double entendres featuring Ty Dolla $ign that has become the biggest hit of the girl group’s career. The single has become the quintet’s first Top 10 hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100 chart, garnering 350 million YouTube views in less than three months and receiving performances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Live with Kelly & Michael and this week’s Billboard Music Awards. 

Most importantly, it has stoked the excitement for Fifth Harmony’s sophomore full-length, 7/27, due out May 27; any pop artist would salivate at the chance of having a Top 40-dominating single peaking as a pivotal album approaches, and Kordei says that she and the rest of the girls never saw their perfectly timed smash coming.

“We did not expect ‘Work From Home’ to be as successful as it’s becoming,” Kordei admits during an April conversation. “All of our other singles are typically very in-your-face and upbeat—it’s a lot at once. We felt like it was needed to take a step back and approach it differently.”

For Fifth Harmony, pop radio is a confection that tastes especially sweet. After Kordei, Ally Brooke Hernandez, Lauren Jauregui, Dinah Jane Hansen and Camila Cabello finished in third place on The X Factor in December 2012, the girl group scored an Epic Records deal and began prepping original tunes. That music trickled out slowly and frustratingly at first: an EP, Better Together, was released in October 2013, but lead single “Miss Movin’ On” didn’t connect at radio. “Bo$$” and “Sledgehammer” were issued in mid-2014 but also failed to find casual listeners, and 5H’s debut album was pushed back to early 2015. Meanwhile, Fifth Harmony was cultivating a massive fan base online and opening for Demi Lovato on tour; there were signs pointing toward stardom, but the lack of a signature single was holding 5H back within the industry.

That validation arrived soon after their debut LP Reflection was released in January 2015. The hypnotic, impossibly catchy “Worth It,” the group’s third single from the album, became their first Top 20 hit, an international smash and bestowed the girls with their first late-night TV opportunities. Crucially, “Worth It,” featuring Kid Ink, also dominated pop radio throughout last summer and gave program directors a song that could move Fifth Harmony beyond the Harmonizers.

“At Top 40, as passionate as fans can be about an artist or group, it’s all about the song,” says Sharon Dastur, senior vice president of programming integration at iHeartRadio. Dastur, previously Z100’s program director, name-checks Shawn Mendes as another artist with a passionate online fan base who took a few swings at crossover success before his breakthrough hit, “Stitches,” took off. “‘Stitches’ is now more than a year old, and we can’t get rid of that song! Same goes for Fifth Harmony—they were releasing good songs, but timing is everything. ‘Worth It’ just really cut through, and their unbelievable fans combined with the mass appeal that the group has taken with these last few songs.”

Another by-product of the “Worth It” win: Fifth Harmony now has more say in what will and won’t work within their music. “Work From Home” has previewed an album that will be markedly different than the vibrant Reflection, with different producers, a more mature point of view and a greater presence in the songwriting process from the five artists.

“I think we had to prove ourselves the first time around—not only to the label, but to the producers and songwriters as well,” Kordei explains. “Now we’re able to go in and be somewhat creative. The decision is up to the label, ultimately, but they definitely allow us to be more hands-on, whereas the first time we didn’t have as much leeway. I think it’s more personal to us now. We’re able to be more creative and express ourselves.”

How mature will 5H get on 7/27? After all, a huge portion of Harmonizers are still teens, or younger; Ty Dolla $ign told Fuse of working on “Work From Home,” “It's cool to do a song that might be played in my daughter’s playlist.” Countless pop stars have made the “look at me, I’m grown-up now” leap before, and for Fifth Harmony, that transition is all about balance, and truth to life.

“It’s always pretty tricky, because we do consider ourselves to be models for the younger generation,” says Kordei. “That’s how we came into this as well, because I know that all of us look up to our idols, and we know that there are little girls and parents out there that look to us to guide them, in some type of way. We’re also people and growing women that are trying to find ourselves. We started this when we were 15, 16 and 19 years old. Now we’re 20, 18 and about to be 23. I think that there’s been a lot of growth throughout those years, and I think that it’s normal for us to try to find ourselves.”

Fifth Harmony has become the most successful U.S. girl group of this decade, as “Work From Home” is the first Hot 100 Top 10 hit by a female pop vocal collective since Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up” in 2008. Other artists, from Little Mix to G.R.L. to a reunited Danity Kane, have tried to break through at U.S. radio in recent years, to little avail. Along with their sound and set of tunes, 5H’s appeal may also reside in the engaging personalities of the quintet—all five members have over 1 million Twitter followers, constantly support each other in interviews and have carved out distinct but complementary roles within Fifth Harmony.

“Their very unique combination of voices and personalities make them different from other girl groups,” says Ricky Reed, who produced “Bo$$” and recently scored hits for Meghan Trainor and Jason Derulo. “The level of star power is so real with them. If there ever comes a time where they start pursuing solo careers, I think we’ll see five superstars emerge.”

That brings up a sensitive subject for Fifth Harmony fans: the possibility of dissolution. Interacting with Harmonizers on social media exposes a long-standing fear of a split, and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” Cabello’s solo duet with Mendes, was met with cautious support from the girl group’s fans when it became a Top 40 hit late last year.

Kordei admits that, however unfounded they are, it’s difficult to quell fan concerns of any members going rogue, a la One Direction’s Zayn Malik. “We see it,” she says of the constant rumors, “but because we’re working so much, and because we’re so excited to put it out, we really don’t put too much energy into that, because we know what’s actually going on. It really is cool to see that people actually care that much, and it honestly feels a bit good to see how loyal they are to us and how much they want us to succeed.”

The members of Fifth Harmony are now solely focused on the release of 7/27, which Kordei calls “definitely a step up” from Reflection, as well as following up “Work From Home.” A probable next radio single has been selected, a source tells Fuse, and it’s one that is “a slightly different direction for them, but one that fits so perfectly for them.” Meanwhile, an international tour in support of 7/27 has not been officially announced but the girls treat it as an inevitability. “I’m looking forward to traveling and seeing faces that we haven’t seen before,” Kordei says excitedly.

The group’s second act is off to a riveting start, and the success of “Work From Home,” however unexpected, has set up Fifth Harmony for their biggest year to date. For Kordei—who has spent much of the past four years singing next to, traveling with and learning from her 5H sisters—the real payoff of this ride is being able to experience it with others.

“We’re sharing some of the best moments of our lives together,” she says. “I don’t think any of us expected, going into X Factor, this being the result of it. I personally didn’t, and I’m really grateful for it. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, in the best way possible. Sometimes it can take a toll on us. It’s all about balance, focusing on the music, and whatever it is that makes us happy.”

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