Some things are harder than others. Whether it’s balancing a checkbook, finding a job, splitting an atom or taking Justin Bieber seriously. The 21-year-old pop megastar was the apple of every teen girl’s eye, but puberty hit the Biebs like a bullet and then things started going south. There was the egg-throwing, the whiny attitude, the DUI, the love drama with Selena Gomez and the pseudo-rapper style that’d make Jamie Kennedy in Malibu’s Most Wanted look tame. Bieber became another laughing stock of pop culture and embarked on the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour,” apologizing for his bad boy behavior as much as possible and trying to remind people that he’s matured.
But here’s the thing: were we EVER supposed to take Bieber seriously? If Bieber’s age, his fan base and his attitude were pulled from the picture and all that was left was the music, it’s just cutesy teen-pop right? Stuff like “Baby,” “Boyfriend,” and “Never Say Never” wouldn’t be out of place on a Disney Channel Original Movie soundtrack. Despite anyone’s feelings on Justin Biebers as a person, there wasn’t all that much to say about Justin Bieber as a musician. He was a discount prepubescent Justin Timberlake with a touch of hip-hop style and “swaggy” added, that was it.
To his credit, Bieber seemed to know that too. His last release, the 2013 batch of one-off singles Journals, saw him moving away from pandering bubblegum pop towards smooth R&B. The lowered tone of his vocals mixed well with the chilled beats on “Recovery,” “Hold Tight,” and “Confident.” This year, he had one of the best songs of the summer (the Diplo/Skrillex collab “Where Are Ü Now”) and his first number one single (“What Do You Mean”). With all this success and Bieber’s pleas for forgiveness apparently working, does this mean Bieber’s finally found a way to make himself a notable musician?
Short answer: not really, but he’s halfway there. Purpose is Bieber’s latest album and musically speaking, it’s his most timely and tolerable music to date. Most of the stuff on Purpose is club-ready R&B jams that would play just as well in Ibiza as it would at a high school dance. “Sorry,” “I’ll Show You,” and the aforementioned “What Do You Mean,” have restrained but groovy beats that have an Eastern flavor to them. Bieber is still flirting with modern hip-hop on “No Sense,” with Travis Scott in the most enjoyable thing Scott has released this year (mind you, he did drop an album this year and this song is still better). Bieber even makes for a good teen fist-pumping anthem with newcomer Halsey on “The Feeling.” If Bieber made a nonstop R&B club record that would be fine, but like most pop stars, ballads bring it all down. “Life Worth Living,” is a solo piano ballad that never has a pulse. “Children,” is a soapy “save the world” tune in the vein of Michael Jackson’s “Childhood,” or “Earth Song,” which makes the progressive club beat feel all the more wasted. Bieber can easily hide behind good club beats (made by the likes of Skrillex, Poo Bear and Blood) to keep the album’s energy up, but he can’t hide his over-singing on slow songs.
While Purpose is musically sound, it’s lyrics aren’t exactly introspective. In fact, they’re all pretty much the same. Even through all the music is mostly upbeat, Bieber’s lyrics are solemn statements about him apologizing for everything bad he’s done in..well, basically his entire existence as a pop star. “I’ll Show You,” is Bieber in falsetto saying it’s not easy being the most famous teenager on the planet, “Sorry,” is him hoping he can still apologize for his unsavory behavior, he even has to apologize for himself when he comes on to a new girl in “No Company,” which isn’t helped by the presence of Big Sean’s goofy rap (“You supposed to be my uno, Yoko Ono….We’ve been fightin more than Ryu and Ken”). Bieber (and his writers) are at least blunt, and that helps in the case of “Love Yourself,” co-written by Ed Sheeran. Bieber takes sharp digs at a narcissistic girl (tables have turned, eh Biebs?) who broke his heart (“For all the times you made me feel small/I fell in love, now I fear nothin’ at all/I never felt so low when I was vulnerable/Was I fool to let you break down my walls?”). It’s nice that Bieber is admitting his faults, but he doesn’t need to do it over 3/4ths of an album.
Here’s something odd: if fans spring for the deluxe edition of Purpose, they’ll get seven more tracks of some more enjoyable club tracks where Bieber goes back to being the smooth operator…and it works! Sure, those annoyed by his come-ons will still be bothered, but it’s not as flashy as his previous records. The secret to Bieber’s musical resurgence is that he’s dialed back, both the music and the bravado. Sure he’s still a lovey-dovey sap who doesn’t go any deeper than “bein’ with you, gurl,” but he’s 21-years-old. What’d you expect, Ryan Adams? Bieber the musician has always been easier to deal with than Bieber the person, he’s a cheesy pop star that isn’t ashamed to enjoy the perks. Is he too high on his own ego? Of course he is, but if he learns to dole it out in smaller parts he might not have half the Internet trying to castrate him. Purpose is something Beliebers will swallow whole and praise as the second coming, but it’s lyrics are repetitive and only goes so far as moderately fun pop. Every song here could soundtrack a teen rom-com, specifically those scenes where the male lead tries to get the girl back before the finale. Yes, Bieber’s back, but now it’s time to see what he does now that the “Sympathy Tour” is over. Here’s a suggestion for a title (and theme) for his next album: Balance