Fifth Harmony underwhelms on their hotly anticipated album.
One song into Fifth Harmony’s second album and it’s clear: you’ve heard this before. The bouncy horns in the opening track “That’s My Girl” instantly recall their breakout hit “Worth It” while its lyrics boost the sassy, confident message of sisterhood with which the girl group has become so closely identified (“Destiny said you got to get up and get it / Get mad independent, don’t you ever forget it”). Unfortunately, familiarity isn’t a big problem that Fifth Harmony faces on 7/27, named for the date they were thrown together, One Direction style, on The X Factor after unsuccessfully auditioning as individual artists. Despite the title’s homage to the their roots as a band, the girls largely abandon the music styles and lyrical themes that made them so alluring upon their debut.
Given their manufactured origins in reality television (and the fact that they didn’t actually win that competition), it’s remarkable how globally successful Fifth Harmony has become in such a short time. They are routinely mentioned in the same breath as other massively popular girl groups like Destiny’s Child, Dixie Chicks, and the Pussycat Dolls. But their triumphs are not without merit. The five girls who make up the group—Ally Brooke, Camila Cabello, Dinah Jane, Lauren Jauregui, and Normani Kordei—are each gifted vocalists, and their zippy debut album Reflection was surprisingly fun, savvy, and slickly produced.
One would hope 7/27 would build upon that trend, but Fifth Harmony’s second effort fails to deliver. The girls cast away the youthful energy and contagious pep that defined Reflection in favor of midtempo tracks that are designed to convince us how much they have matured in the sixteen months between albums. And while some growth is welcomed, their deliberate diversion away from electro-R&B and toward tropical house music, a la Rihanna, is what truly kills the spirit of the album. The chief culprit in this misinformed genre shift is “All in My Head (Flex)”, a breezy but stupefied dance track complete with a regrettable cameo from Fetty Wap. It’s a rare moment in which the group’s swagger is annoying rather than empowering.
The vast majority of the tracks don’t encumber the album as noticeably, but they are certainly forgettable. “I Lied” sounds like a bastardized leftover track from JoJo’s recent foray into dance music while “Squeeze” is as cheesy as it is numbing. 7/27 also suffers from a lack of true ballads; even when songs like “Dope” and “No Way” slow down the tempo, the girls seem more content to “chill” than offer soulful interludes and highlight their dynamic vocals, much like they did with “We Know” on Reflection.
Bright moments of relief come from the catchy hook and playful lyrics of the infectious lead single “Work From Home” (“You don’t gotta go to work / Let my body do the work”). “Write on Me” is an enjoyably tender approach to the album’s breezy dance inclinations, even if it feels a bit out of place. But only “Not That Kinda Girl” manages to capture the group’s charm that is so sorely lacking elsewhere. The earworm of a song’s best quality is not the delectable verse from Missy Elliott (although, that’s usually an album highlight, no matter who the main artist is), but its unexpectedly adept ode to the late Prince.
Still, even on the strongest tracks, the album’s heart sounds phoned in. The singers themselves, who—despite the name of their band—don’t harmonize so much as blend their vocals together into the same note, sound bored by the material. They’re dull even when promoting a carefree lifestyle of wealth and fun on “The Life”. (Is this the life? I’m wholly unconvinced.) Perhaps it’s an intentional ploy to come off more sophisticated, or maybe their publicly acknowledged creative differences have forced them to compromise musically to unsatisfying ends. Only Cabello, whose chipper, breathy vocals also make her the most distinctive singer in the group, sounds like she’s enjoying herself, so it’s no wonder she has the most solos.
7/27 doesn’t sound like a sophomore album improving upon what its predecessor did so well. Instead, it seems like a ploy for credibility. But by chasing trends and repressing their vivacious bravada, Fifth Harmony loses what made them so endearing in the first place. This isn’t to say fans won’t be pleased; there’s enough here to keep even the most passionate of Harmonizers happy, and several of the tracks are smartly designed for extensive play on radio and in the club. But 7/27 and its revamped pseudo-maturity won’t win the girls any new converts. Still, the women of Fifth Harmony have already built their collective career on defying the odds; a subpar album is disappointing, but it certainly won’t derail the world’s premier girl group.