The news broke on Nov. 9: British girl group Little Mix has parted ways with Simon Cowell’s Syco record label just days before the release of their fifth album. For members Jesy Nelson, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards, who — like boy band One Direction — had formed a group on Cowell’s show “The X Factor” (2004–), this marks a huge shift in their careers. The split was blamed on a conflict over writing credits, but it exposed the four women’s deeper concerns about their lack of creative control and sexism in the music industry.
Thirlwall made headlines last week when she alleged that record executives told Little Mix members to “go and flirt with all those important men” at a radio event in the U.S. She also decried the marginalization of members’ creative input. “One producer told us we shouldn’t be writing, we should just be given songs. We realized we, as women, have to work ten times as hard, which is really bloody annoying, because we do write songs,” she said.
In another interview, Edwards summed up the band’s journey. “When we started out it was almost like, ‘This is your lane, stay in your lane. You’re the faces and the name,’” she said. “We definitely speak our mind now. If we don’t like it, we always say it.”
And say it they do. “LM5,” Little Mix’s fifth studio album, is a declaration of defiance against misogyny. The LP — which features songwriting credits from all members, especially Thirlwall and Pinnock, who are credited as writers on more than half of the track list — centers themes of feminism and empowerment. They set the tone with intro “The National Manthem,” singing a warning to men who dare cross them in their signature tight four-part harmony. Club-worthy track “Joan of Arc” depicts the exhilaration of going out dancing while single. The lyrics exude self-confidence: “Fan of myself, I’m stannin’ myself/I love me so much I put my hands on myself,” Leigh-Anne repeats as a mantra over a thumping bass line. On the deliciously fun “Wasabi,” which blends punk with 2000’s R&B surprisingly well, Little Mix gives the finger to critics. “You know I love the way you talk about me/Look at how far it got me/You make up shit to write about me/I fold it up like origami,” Jesy taunts.
A highlight of the album is “Strip,” an ode to body positivity. In the half-whispered, spoken word chorus, the members celebrate themselves: “Jiggle all this weight, yeah, you know I love all of this/Finally love me naked, sexiest when I’m confident.” With a verse from rapper Sharaya J and a minimalist beat, “Strip” is perhaps the farthest the album veers sonically from the playful pop that Little Mix is known for. The music video, too, makes a bold statement. The band invites a squad of inspiring female-identifying activists, writers and artists to join them in a celebration of all types of bodies. In a particularly striking image, Nelson, Pinnock, Thirlwall and Edwards appear nude, with insults they’ve received written all over their bodies, staring defiantly at the camera.
Of course, being a twenty-something woman is not all girls’ nights out and blinding confidence. “LM5” also touches on the hardships that come with the package. On first listen, lead single “Woman Like Me” sounds like another girl power dance anthem, with a roaring pre-chorus and a feature from Nicki Minaj. But beneath the bluster lies a hint of insecurity, as the members acknowledge how defying gender roles invites backlash from society. Jade sings, “My momma always said, ‘Girl, you’re trouble’ and/And now I wonder, could you fall for a woman like me?” The tender “Told You So” switches gears, delivering a sweet promise of sisterhood. “We can put the kettle on/Talk ’bout how he’s not the one/I told you/But, I’m never gonna say I told you so,” Little Mix sings, describing the near-universal experience of comforting a girlfriend about a guy even when he was a bad idea all along. The best lyrics are found on bonus track “Woman’s World,” which moves beyond proclamations of confidence to directly address the systemic disadvantages women face. “If you never shouted to be heard/You ain’t lived in a woman’s world,” the chorus declares. The message, combined with a showcase of the band’s powerhouse vocals, makes this song a standout.
Of course, an album as long as “LM5” — 18 tracks on the deluxe edition — is bound to have some misses. “American Boy” and “Monster in Me” are uninspiring filler tracks, and the bizarre “Love a Girl Right” — with a dated guitar riff and lyrics about “livin’ la vida loca” — feels out of place. “Motivate,” though sexy with a catchy hook, contradicts the album’s feminist message with lines like “When he’s with me, bitches hate me.” But despite a few blips, “LM5” is Little Mix’s most thematically and sonically cohesive album yet. Only time will tell what their career looks like post-Simon Cowell, but this album proves that Nelson, Pinnock, Thirlwall and Edwards are at their best when they speak their minds.