A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in this lovely section discussing how Justin Bieber staged the comeback of 2015 with the help of a few great pop songs and a disgustingly disingenuous P.R. campaign. From crying at the VMAs to “opening up” on Ellen about his manufactured relationship with Selena Gomez, Bieber’s public appearances over the last few months have represented everything artificial and controlled about pop culture. While his new album intends to reposition Bieber as a mature pop singer who avoided the pitfalls that sideline most child stars, its promotional campaign has turned the guy’s life into more of a reality TV show than ever.
Recent efforts have involved a “candid” and “spontaneous” date night with off-again girlfriend Selena Gomez at a classy Los Angeles restaurant — an outing clearly not intended to coincide with the release of Purpose. In a series of viral Instagram videos, Bieber snatches the lounge singer’s microphone to serenade his love — perched atop the grand piano — with the Temptations’ “My Girl” and an acoustic rendition of his own hit, “Sorry.” It was a scripted attempt at appearing sensitive, made more difficult to dismiss by Bieber’s undeniable charisma and dynamic vocal performance. His PR stunts have often resembled the effect created by the casting of a talented actor in a contrived romantic comedy. Just as you spend the whole runtime hoping they can transcend the confines of a melodramatic script, you pray that the end game of Bieber’s penitence is a collection of killer music. Unfortunately, Purpose often plays like the musical equivalent to a plot point in Justin’s media campaign.
In The New York Times review of the album, critic Jon Caramanica offers Bieber up as a cautionary tale for other male pop stars, arguing that “[Justin’s] need for redemption — public and religious, in this case — has throttled a worthy talent.” And he’s right: Purpose suffocates under the burden of redundant apologies and corny appeals to faith. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the album’s title track, a wannabe piano ballad that concludes with a lo-fi recording of Justin preaching to his fans about not being “too hard on yourself.” It’s an ill-advised strategy that recurs on “All In It,” an otherwise decent R&B-pop blend that closes out the album’s deluxe version. These blind stabs at inspiration present condensed samplers of Purpose’s most glaring flaws. It’s difficult to imagine that, of the countless talents involved in the making of this album, not one person raised their hand to advise against such obtuse emotional appeals.
Justin Bieber is not good at earning sympathy, and Purpose thrives when he works on developing his sound rather than trying to convince parents that it’s safe to play his music for their kids. When his bland redemptive arc moves into the periphery, Justin’s skillsets shift into focus. As a vocalist, he possesses an upper register that’s indescribably pure and light as a feather, allowing his words to nimbly skip across the beat and — at times — become a part of it. It’s a singular ability he refined on this summer’s Skrillex-Diplo production “Where Are Ü Now,” which makes an appearance midway through Purpose’s tracklist. The tropical house-inflected “What Do You Mean” and “Sorry” are fashioned in the same vein as that ubiquitous tune, and they’re some of the only album cuts on which Bieber doesn’t sound fatigued (I stand by the former as one of the best pop songs of the year.).
Beyond those upbeat singles, Justin excels most when his vocals are kept at close proximity and he is allowed to express some semblance of personality beyond head-hanging remorse. “Love Yourself,” a song probably more than co-written by Ed Sheeran, is a middle finger disguised as a love song to a former flame. “I think you should be something I don’t want to hold back / Maybe you should know that,” Justin sings, seemingly building up to another forgiveness narrative before switching tones for the chorus: “My mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone.” It’s a beautifully immature response to heartbreak, just the kind of snark and personality that I wish characterized the album’s blander cuts. Justin’s charisma is sourced from the same pools of pettiness that fueled the antics he begs forgiveness for; egotism defines his appeal as much as it does Drake’s.
It becomes clear during Purpose’s R&B-inflected cuts that Bieber envisions himself as following in the footsteps of a certain other Justin, but his constant focus on power-washing his bad boy image undercuts him at every turn. If actual songwriting were the focus here, sultry beats like those on “No Pressure” could have made for another “Sexy Back.” What we get instead is toothless R&B-pop sandwiched between cheesy soliloquies on faith. What’s worse is that Bieber rarely sounds like he’s enjoying himself on these songs. He only really cuts loose on deluxe edition tracks like “Been You” and “Get Used To It,” fantastic blends of disco, pop and R&B that’ll make you wonder what could’ve been.
In an ideal world, Justin Bieber makes a proper album as his follow-up to Purpose. For now, what we’ve got is a marketing move combined with a handful of top-notch pop songs.
Chris Stanton is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]