The impetus for this article began with a tweet I released into the world earlier this month.
I’m not embarrassed about it, though I’m supposed to be, I guess. Even as I’ve developed into something of a poptimist over the last few years, Bieber's music still fell outside the purview of “pop music” deemed acceptable to even the most broad-minded of music-critic types.
Where can I go to confess that I think the new @justinbieber is kinda good?— Adam P. Newton (@dryvetyme) November 17, 2015
Why? Probably because he rose to fame as the protege of Usher with a song whose chorus was comprised of him crooning the word “Baby” multiple times. A good poptimist is supposed to disdain the old barriers between genres and enjoy the music of Beyonce, Drake, Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry, and Miguel at the same time and without any irony.
But Bieber? He sang sappy nonsense that appealed to naive tweens who treated him like the second coming of Elvis. It was the wrong kind of “pop” music, and he certain didn’t help his case with his offstage antics (you know, the sort that music journalists either ignored or accepted as normal back in the day).
So, when a fellow critic friend of mine recently sent Purpose my way, encouraging me to give it as unbiased of a listen as possible, my interest was piqued. Was it a joke? Was it hilariously bad? Was it strangely worth a damn? Why did he think I needed to give this kid the space in my music catalog?
Lo and behold, I’m here to proclaim that the new Justin Bieber record is pretty good. It’s not great — no rose-colored glasses or pop cultural contrarianism here — but when this record works, it really works.
If you know anything about this new release, you’ve probably heard or read some version of the word “confessional” or “mature.” It’s true - the Biebs is apologizing to someone (possibly LOTS of someones, but probably Selena Gomez) over the course of this 13-song release on Def Jam.
[DEF JAM?!? FOR REAL?!? THE SAME LABEL THAT RELEASED PUBLIC ENEMY?!?]
And why does this work? Because he sells it. All of it. The sorrow, chagrin, hurt, pain, frustration, and willingness to admit he was totally in the wrong with the breakup(s). I believe him, and that makes a world of difference. Put it this way: as a thirtysomething white dude who listened to lost of second- and third-wave emo in context, I’ve heard lots of songs from dudes whining about a shitty breakup, mourning a lost love because they fucked up. And Bieber channels the same sort of angst and anguish employed by those angular guitar-rock bands did.
To borrow a phrase from the wise folks running the Switched on Pop podcast, Purpose is Bieber’s “Existential Suite.” This makes sense — he’s a twentyomething guy who’s just gone through the (very public) breakup of his first grownup relationship, and he’s sad about it, which makes him super introspective. I get it. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Most of us have been there. Justin simply brings those feelings to life in the guise of a larger-than-life pop star.
Sonically, the album is on-point and supremely of-the-moment. Bieber has obviously spent the past two years learning at the feet of Drake, Frank Ocean, and The Weeknd. His feelings are raw, and while he’s not afraid of them, he’s also unsure of what to do with them. This pares well with production and melodic arrangements from folks like Diplo, Skrillex, Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd, and Benny Blanco — as it doesn’t hurt that they borrow heavily from the sparse and glitchy minimalist aesthetic exemplified by Jamie xx, Clams Casino, and James Blake.
This album hits some stupendous heights, especially on the triptych of songs frontloading the experience. “I’ll Show You,” “What Do You Mean?" and “Sorry” showcase Bieber’s growth as a songwriter, including his willingness to sing about what he knows. He’s not the first person to channel pain into art (and he won’t be the last), but when he comes across as authentic and relatable on other enjoyable tracks like “Love Yourself” and “The Feeling" (featuring Halsey), this goes a long way into determining how and if I connect with someone’s music.
Like I said earlier, this is a pretty good, but most definitely not great, record. Bieber stumbles regularly on Purpose's second half, both in terms of his lyrical focus and his musical direction. Cuts like “No Sense,” “Children” and the title track drift into a mishmash of generic EDM-inspired pop tropes and sentimental piano-led schlock. When Bieber opts for sentimentality instead of hard truths when dealing with his feelings, Purpose suffers desperately. Things reach their nadir on “Life is Worth the Living” — when he intones “Only God can judge me,” he sounds like a sad-sack who is drunk-dialing his ex in the middle of the night, instead of a hard-bitten grownup drinking alone and taking his much-deserved medicine.
Ultimately, I like Purpose, and I’m not (too) ashamed to admit it in public. I mean, this article is now on the Internet, which means it’s going to be online forever for everyone to read (at least until the Apocalypse arrives and destroys our infrastructure), so I guess I don’t mind people knowing I have favorable thoughts about a Justin Bieber record.
Just don’t tell my twentysomething self, as he’ll probably make snide remarks about the vacuous nature of modern pop music.
Tickets for Bieber's April 9, 2016 concert at Houston's Toyota Center are on sale now via AEG Live.