From its inception four years ago, Fifth Harmony has had to defy the odds.
The pop girl group was pieced together four years ago by reality show magnate Simon Cowell on the short-lived, less successful U.S. edition of "The X Factor" after the members entered the competition as solo hopefuls. And on the series, viewers watched them rise as underdogs to frontrunners in the competition's final weeks.
They lost "X Factor," but their breakout on the show positioned them as a viable entry in a pop landscape that had long been devoid of a girl group that was worth taken seriously.
"Reflection," Fifth Harmony's smartly produced 2015 debut, saw the group put its scrappy beginnings in the rearview and scored a multi-platinum hit that showcased their potential to make a dent.
The group — composed of Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei, Lauren Jauregui, Camila Cabello and Dinah-Jane Hansen — is hoping to go further with its follow-up, "7/27."
Named after the date the group was created, the quintet had the tough task of building on a debut that was rife with effervescent pop jams and teen girl anthems; showcasing its growth; and fending off pesky breakup rumors that heated up as their biggest hit, "Worth It" (the first single from a girl group to break the Top 20 since the Pussycat Dolls in 2009) climbed the charts.
And "7/27" mostly rises to the occasion.
It opens with a pair of frenetic bangers that picks up where "Worth It" and "Boss" (standouts from "Reflection") left off. There's the horn driven bombast of "That's My Girl," one of three songs rising R&B star Tinashe co-wrote, that delivers a punchy message of female unity and lead single, "Work From Home," a slinky sex jam which allowed them to be flirty and naughty without completely turning your cheeks red.
Where "Reflection" stuck closely to updating '90s R&B/hip-hop beats and current dance-pop, the ladies explored more radio trends on the bulk of the album. That meant a great deal of the album is drenched in EDM and tropical house. An eye on bottling up summer vibes and creating dance-floor jams works greatly here, especially on the celebratory anthem "The Life" — "Give it up for the kids / eating good, getting lit / living life, feeling rich," they sing — but the tropical flourishes are overwrought by the time the album hits "Squeeze," a breezy, generic foot-stomper produced by Kygo and Stargate (who produced the bulk of the album).
There's an attempt at vulnerability, here, but unfortunately those attempts are short lived.
The tenderness of "Write On Me" is lost amid tropical synths, and the album lacks real balladry, although "Scared of Happy" is a powerful ode to insecurity that could easily become an anthem. Still, nothing on "7/27" offers much of a peek at who these young women are when they aren't flexing on the dance floor or nursing young heartbreak.
But Fifth Harmony has already proved it's at its best when doubling down on sassy, addictive hooks and bouncy urban pop grooves.
The reggaeton-inflected "All My Head (Flex)," built around Mad Cobra's dirty classic and the only song the group co-wrote, and the Missy Elliott-assisted "Not That Kinda Girl," with its funky Prince-inspired bounce, are the album's most infectious offerings, and bonus offering "Dope" is their strongest showcase of maturity yet.
"7/27" is a reminder that when the girls play to their fiercest strengths, they are a force to reckon with — even if they remain their own competition.