Destiny’s Child had Beyoncé, the Pussycat Dolls had Nicole Scherzinger, but the secret weapon of Fifth Harmony might be the lack of their own queen bee. Sure, Camila Cabello gets the most solos and has joined the Taylor Swift Squad, but no member towers over the others in terms of talent or potential star power. Lauren Jauregui, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane Hansen, Ally Brooke Hernandez and Cabello could be poster girls for Shine Theory: five women, assembled together on The X Factor in 2012 after unsuccessful solo bids, whose differences only highlight their respective strengths, not undermine them.
Pop music, especially from girl groups and boy bands, often gets dismissed as being “manufactured.” But just like their overseas counterparts, One Direction, Fifth Harmony succeed in spite of, not because of, their reality show origins. You can throw together a group of singers, but you can’t fake the quintet’s stage presence; you certainly can’t manufacture a hit like last year’s “Worth It,” a sexy self-esteem anthem that extended the lifespan of saxophones on Top 40 by at least several months. So why, then, does the group’s second album, 7/27—a reference to the date the group formed—feel like such an unneeded credibility play?
The record opens with the one-two punch of “That’s My Girl,” a souped-up “Worth It” sequel that runs circles around Michelle Obama’s for-the-ladies jam, and “Work From Home,” the first top-five single from a girl group in a decade. (Previously, the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons” hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006.) But after that, 7/27 quickly devolves into middle-of-the-road, tropical house tracks that spend so much time flaunting their maturity that they forget to have very much fun. The hitmakers are there: Stargate and Kygo produced a handful of tracks, while R&B star Tinashe co-wrote three songs, including the turbo-charged “The Life.” Yet the sassy girl-power proclamations and gleefully unsubtle double-entendres that elevated the group’s 2015 debut, Reflection, are largely pushed aside for mid-tempos about romance and intimacy.
Deep, vulnerable, personal—these were some of the quintet’s stated goals for 7/27. It’s not a bad look by any means: Jauregui’s smoky voice keeps “Write On Me” from sounding like a dramatic reading of notes passed between middle-school crushes, while Hansen’s powerful hook carries the über-catchy “All in My Head (Flex)”—the only song the group co-wrote—and saves it from its Fetty Wap cameo. In fact, if growing up means anything for the quintet, it’s that vocal duties are more evenly distributed among its members. But none of that egalitarianism keeps “Not That Kinda Girl,” which closes out the album’s standard edition, from offering a glimpse of what this album could have been. A startlingly spot-on homage to Prince, the Missy Elliott-assisted throwback is the moment when the album drops any pretense and truly lets loose. It’s one of the best songs they’ve ever recorded—and it’s a funky reminder that taking Fifth Harmony seriously is a lot easier when its members aren’t hung up on sounding so serious. B