By Spencer Bowen
Like the ever-changing hair situation atop his head, Justin Bieber hasn’t always been good. But like his sometimes majestic and sometimes disastrous locks, he has always been interesting. There was never any denying his talent or his boyish good looks – even when he decided that egging a neighbor’s house was a pit stop on his life journey – but I’ve always wondered if he is really an artist. You know that subtle step some young pitchers take where they transition from a good thrower to an actual pitcher? That’s the step I was skeptical Bieber would ever take.
Friends, family, Beliebers: The Biebs has taken that step.
Have I been singing “Love Yourself” non-stop over the past week? Yes.
Have I watched Bieber’s appearance on Ellen more times than I’d care to admit? Yes.
And have I re-watched Bieber’s seminal work on Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” for the first time in what seems like 48 years? Hell yes.
I’ve always struggled with Bieber. He’s an enigma. On one hand, he “drops bangers,” as the kids say these days, with semi-regularity. From the time “Baby” hit the national consciousness (and we were reminded yet again of Ludacris’ ability to make every song he touches 1,000% better), JB has released “Eenie Meenie” (remember Sean Kingson!?), “Somebody to Love,” and “Boyfriend” (don’t lie to me and say you don’t like that song). His well-documented PR and legal issues are hard to escape, but don’t ignore the challenges inherent to the amount of stardom forced upon JBiebs at such an early age. But some people definitely ignore the challenges. I mean, remember this??
For me, I’ve usually landed somewhere around neutral on the Bieber Fever thermometer. His annoying outfits, his pouty little faces, his laughably bad tattoo choices, and his now kitsch-classic Calvin Klein advertisements get balanced out because of his close friendship with his mentor Usher, my all-time favorite artist. For context, I’ve seen Usher live twice and Siri calls me “Usher Raymond.”
I’ve been no better than “meh” toward Bieber. Plus, I couldn’t shake the inescapable feeling that Usher taught Bieber just enough dance moves to be cool but not nearly enough to be cooler that Urrrrrrsher baby.
But Bieber has kicked into overdrive with “Purpose,” an admittedly cliché album title that doesn’t matter at all because it’s filled with pop-electronic-acoustic-R&B gold. Bieber isn’t just back, he’s arrived as a versatile and complete artist. Somewhere (probably A-town, let’s be real), an entering-the-mature-activist-elder-statesman-of-r-and-b-and-borderline-black-george-clooney-phase Usher is smiling.
On to the album.
“Mark My Words”
Boss move by Bieber here. It’s an honest-to-goodness introductory/transitionary track, something we last saw well-executed on the big stage by Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a stand alone, it’s a part of a larger work. An auspicious start.
“I’ll Show You”
This isn’t my favorite, but it’s atmospheric and well-produced. I could see Chris Brown making this song cooler because he’s Chris Brown but simultaneously ruining it with endless vocal runs, but Bieber is composed and deploys to perfection that cool echo effect that’s become so popular. Not a game-changer, but comparing Bieber and Chris Brown is encouraging.
“What Do You Mean?”
I think the hidden meaning of this song is Bieber questioning everyone who says “Eh, I don’t really like Justin Bieber. He’s just okay.” I picture Bieber appearing in rooms where variations of this quote are uttered, apparition-style (pop!), and saying “Oh really? But, dude, what do you mean?” while slowly turning up this inescapably catchy song on an old school boombox.
“What Do You Mean?” is better because it’s more inventive and less of a traditional pop-hit template than “Sorry,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. This is still freaking awesome, made all the better by the acoustic treatment Bieber gave it on Ellen.
This is the song that changes the vibe of the album from “Wow, it’s good!” to “What just happened?!?!” Yes, Ed Sheeran delivered this gift to Bieber on a very British silver platter, but holy cow. This is really really good. And I think it’s the rare song that is being received just how an artist hoped it would be – as a stripped-down validation of next-level musical talent.
A groovy aftertaste to “Love Yourself,” this feels like a poor man’s Disclosure song. Which isn’t bad.
Producers’ thought process: We made a sweet GarageBand beat! Justin, throw some R&B crooning over this! And we’ll add Big Sean too!!!! Yes!
This isn’t one of the stronger links in the chain. Big Sean’s verse features references to eating cookies and earning straight A’s, which are two things I’m skeptical that Big Sean does. Next.
Back to that funky atmospheric groove that he’s making into his own genre, sprinkled with some pretty sweet high hat and piano. I dig.
You know that one song on every big album that is good but doesn’t have room to breathe early on because of other hits from the same record that crowd it out? Like “Bad Blood” for 1989? This is that song. Prepare for radio DJ’s to say “Yo, I got a fresh new track from Justin Bieber, it’s called ‘The Feeling’!” in June 2016. But also prepare for this song to be a legitimate hit by then.
“Life Is Worth Living”
Bieber goes ballad! This feels like a natural fit. Solid, if unspectacular. He’ll definitely perform this on an award show under a single spotlight at a $100,000 piano to start a set and then transition to a bigger, adjacent stage with more fire and more fog to do one of the big hitters.
“Where Are U Now”
This one feels like it’s been out for two years. Yet, it’s still good.
Obviously I have no idea if this is true, but: doesn’t it kind of feel like Bieber had a huge internal struggle over whether to release this or “Sorry” as the second single?? Imagine if this came out stand-alone. We’d all be gyrating and hopping and shaking to it every hour of the day. Ultimately, it’s a little over-electronic, but man is it fun.
Recorded on the same day with the same piano player and in the same sound booth as “See You Again” by Charlie Puth. Just kidding. But you thought about it, right? This isn’t that good, but it’s redeemed/ruined by Bieber channeling his inner Boyz 2 Men at the end with the classic R&B talking voiceover. BIEBER IS LEGEND.
Another solid, formulaic banger. Still super fun.
“Get Used To It”
I want to walk down a big boulevard listening to this song. It joins other Spencer Bowen favorite walking songs, like “Heartless” by Kanye and “Take Back the Night” by Justin Timberlake.
Has Nas!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Feels like a
half-baked song Bieber did just so he could have Nas on the album. But Nas!!!!!!
“All In It”
Love the acoustic guitar – wish it stayed throughout the song as the defining musical feature. There’s a lot going on here, mostly good, but the cumulative effect is a little overwhelming. Plus the return of talking Bieber, just five tracks after “Purpose”! A nice closing note to end the fine merlot of this album.
Even the obvious and super-forced rehabilitation of JB’s image by TeamBieber™ can’t make me dislike this album. His current hair style came close, but ultimately nothing can slow down this blonde, tattooed, surprisingly likable, Canadian locomotive. Hop on now. It’s not slowing down soon.