Today sees the release of the fourth proper Justin Bieber studio album, Purpose, an album that contains a fair amount of listenable material from Bieber (at least three songs!). Preceding this album has been a string of derpily titled singles—“Where Are Ü Now,” “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry”—that work on their own as proper songs and don’t require built-in fandom for appreciation. They’ve all gone Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 (“What Do You Mean” debuted at No. 1, in fact), which has helped shape a narrative that this album marks a comeback for Bieber. But where did he go? What do you mean, music press? And, most importantly, why should we care? Below we attempt to unravel these great mysteries.
Rich: Hello Jordan. I, like you, am a white man and I do not like this new Justin Bieber album that I feel weirdly obligated to consider. I wonder if you like it.
Jordan: Hi, Rich. I think this album is well done (not in the meat sense, although maybe?). It’s a nice professional pop album. But given who we’re dealing with here, that’s kind of a low bar, right?
Rich: Yes. The “story” of this album, via the music press, is that this is Bieber’s comeback album, his bid back into mainstream favor. How that differs from any other album of his—none were meant to be anything but feverishly consumed by the masses—is lost on me. It arrives in a year when multiple profiles of the Weeknd amounted to, “This guy wants to be Michael Jackson, and so he made a more commercial-sounding album.” These are the narratives we are dealing with! Music is telling some boring stories this year—and I don’t think that’s journalists’ fault (though for the most part, they aren’t helping).
Jordan: I guess there was nowhere else for the Bieber narrative to go. America loves a good comeback, right? The funny thing is that it’s not like Bieber did anything that bad. He was kind of just a mild punk? The worst thing he did, legally speaking, was drag race and smoke pot. In any event, in the defense of the narrative, I do think it’s worth noting that “Where Are Ü Now” was a genuine kinda out-of-nowhere hit, as much as a song starring Justin Bieber could be. But, like, “Sorry,” which is this album’s second single, is supposedly an apology song, and though it’s a very good pop song, who wants to hear Justin Bieber sing an apology song, let alone an apology album? What is he even apologizing for?
Rich: That’s the thing: I’ll take Bieber pissing in a bucket to Bieber babbling, “Who’s got the heart? Whose heart is the biggest? Wear it on your sleeve then we can make a difference” any day. No need to apologize for the most riveting spectacle of your career, my man! Given the mildness of his crimes, all of the overt apologizing and hand-wringing over his image (“My life is a movie, and everyone’s watching, so let’s get to the good part and past all the nonsense,” he sings in “I’ll Show You”) strikes me as disingenuous. Nothing from a pop star says “sorry” quite as well as a good pop song, and Bieber has released three of them from this album (I’m counting “Where Are Ü Now”). He may be growing up, but he’s still playing show and tell. He’d be better off just doing the former.
Jordan: I don’t doubt that he might have felt like his career spiraling, or that much of the public hated him, because it seems like they did! In the bubble of celebrity it was probably pretty easy for him to convince himself that things were going very poorly, and I don’t doubt that people like Scooter Braun were telling him that exact thing. So I do think the feeling here is genuine, and I do think that “I’ll Show You,” for instance, has some effectively simple lyrics: “Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real / Act like you know me, but you never will.” I think that successfully conveys what it can feel like to be a major celebrity. But generally I agree with you that the spectacle of his apology tour just isn’t that interesting, from this album to him crying at the VMAs to his Comedy Central Roast.
Rich: It conveys what it feels like to be a major celebrity, but also how little insight that accompanies those feelings. No one thinks Bieber is a robot. Doubting his humanity isn’t the issue, it’s responding to how he expresses it. And I don’t know, a guy who’s moved to tears over receiving applause doesn’t strike me as particularly emotionally sophisticated. I’m sure the amount of feedback that he receives is overwhelming and annoying. I can relate to that and the amount of feedback I receive is infinitesimal compared to even a d-list reality star. I can’t really admire art that just yells back into the echo chamber, or what which disproportionately focuses on the negative aspects of fame when by any measure, Bieber has lived a charmed existence. On the saccharine piano ballad “Life Is Worth Living,” he sings, “What I get from my reflection / Is a different perception / From what the world may see / They try crucify me / I ain’t perfect won’t deny / My reputation’s on the line / So I’m working on a better me.” Blah blah blah. No one’s trying to crucify you, man, they’re just responding to what you do. Some people love it, some people hate it. That’s how it goes. Some people do it with less finesse than others, but that’s what happens when you democratize communication to the degree that our society has. Boo hoo.
Jordan: I 100 percent agree with you that the lyrics on this this album are really insipid. It’s impossible not to laugh when he opens a song by saying “What about the children?” It’s almost slapstick. It’s also hard to buy what we’re being sold—that this album is Bieber easing into maturity—when I don’t recognize any adult relationship I’ve had in his lyrics. I think my biggest problem is that he’s always the victim in his own songs, which is as sure a sign of immaturity as anything. “Where Are Ü Now” and “What Do You Mean” are both great pop compositions, but they’re so whiny and one-sided. He’s always being wronged by a nameless woman, but like, I’m pretty sure that between him and Selena Gomez he was the asshole in that relationship. Even on “Sorry,” which is an explicit apology song, the first lines are, “You gotta go and get mad at all of my honesty / You know I try but I don’t do well with apologies.” Like, grow up! That the album is well-curated and tasteful and skillfully executed and all that is great, but the point of view of the lyrics doesn’t mesh with that at all, and that’s a tension in this album that I don’t find appealing.
Rich: How telling is it, too, that much like Chris Brown, Bieber’s method of vocal emphasis is to tighten up his throat and squeeze out the emotion? His lyrics aren’t just whiny; his delivery is. We forget in these narratives that we’re dealing with brats who’ve been told more than most people that they’re more special than most people while their brains were still developing. They come carrying tremendous self-entitlement and then when things don’t go their way, they throw tantrums. Besides beginning to work with a template that was dancey yet spacious (unlike so much EDM that’s produced within an inch of its life, or most of today’s block-waveform pop, for that matter), what was so refreshing about the recent string of hits from Bieber—“Where Are Ü Now,” “What Do You Mean,” and “Sorry”—is his delivery is relaxed in a way that sounds honest. I wouldn’t go as far as to call him “soulful” ever, as he always sounds like an imitation of an imitation who’s too busy performing emotion to actually convey it, some of his vocals have a lived-in quality to them that I’ve never heard before in his work. He didn’t have to remind me, “Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real,” so overtly. I could already detect it.
Jordan: Yeah, I remember thinking when “Where Are Ü Now” came out that his vocals were almost suspiciously good. You’re right about the singles—he doesn’t reach vocally at all, which is good because he doesn’t have the natural singing talent to strive for notes. In that sense, EDM does make sense for him because he still can’t convincingly pull off R&B—“No Pressure,” the Big Sean feature on this record, should be a nice little unshowy ballad, but he sings the entire song through his nose. And the ballads—“Life Is Worth Living” and the title track—just totally fall flat. Both Chris Brown and Bieber are pop stars in the mold of Michael Jackson, but Michael’s vocals were at once intensely strong and perilously fragile. It was, of course, one of the richest and most interesting voices in the history of pop. That’s an impossible standard but Bieber gets nowhere close to hitting that sweet spot, and this album falls off in the second half when things move away from what you correctly identify as refreshingly spacious dance-pop.
Rich: Right. As impressive as it is to arrive at a sound that feels edgy yet adult-friendly, that pounds but politely, that emits a palpable warmth out if its gleaming electronics, things come right back to earth on Purpose’s several terrible attempts at R&B balladry. He’s such a sexless soul singer that these songs are enough to make me forget about seeing his dick last month and go back to assuming that he’s just flat down there, like a Ken doll. And this formula that Srillex and Diplo have devised for him, by the way, is run to the ground—there are variations on it throughout the album, some sounding more nu-disco, some sounding more tropical house, but they all do the thing where the earwormy chorus gives way to even earwormier pre-verbalvocalizing. The self-pity, the sad attempts at soul, the underwhelming but pronounced narrative, the willingness to take what worked and make a stream of copies of it make this album represent pop’s worst impulses in one package. Bieber has certain tools for maturing—experience and the awareness that it’s time to mature, chiefly—but he holds them like a child. And isn’t wanting to be a big boy a cornerstone of childhood, anyway?
I want to conclude by juxtaposing a few quotes from the recent Billboard cover story on Bieber. In it, he proclaims:
Enough with the Justin Bieber Show. I want to very away from the self-centered attitude. I’m just focused on the people who are taking the journey now. I want them to feel like we’re doing this together.
But then there is this bit:
Asked why he thinks Nicki Minaj’s beef with Miley Cyrus was the bigger VMAs story, he balks, “I honestly thought my crying was more talked about.”
And he also calls being a child star “the toughest thing in the world,” most likely because he cannot really consider existence outside his own. The Justin Bieber Show is alive and well, and as long as it is, we’re going to get piles and piles of content that amount to very little in the long run. The deluxe edition of this album is 20 songs long (as if he has a verse’s worth of actual things to say), but the time I got to Track 15, “Get Used To Me,” I wasn’t just used to Bieber, I was sick of him. This…is his comeback.
Jordan: And, honestly, for as much praise as we’re giving the tailoring of this album, the collection of bonus tracks is probably better than the second half of this record—“Where Are Ü Now” and “The Feeling,” which somehow makes weird vowel-maker Halsey entirely tolerable, aside. Of course, this is nothing new. So many major label records in the last few years have used bonus tracks as a way of encouraging listeners to rearrange albums—a peace offering to the playlist era. So Purpose, really, is just another contemporary pop album, which is far from the worst thing in the world but it sure feels like this could have, and maybe even should have, been more than that.
[Image via AP]