The day of reckoning has come.
The harrowing question that has sent culture spiraling into existential crisis has been asked: Is it OK to like Justin Bieber for his music?
Purpose, the crooning Canadian menace’s most recent album, doesn’t just grant you permission to respect the public tyrant’s music. It downright compels you to. It’s his best album ever, and ranks among the best pop releases this year.
That’s not to say that Purpose isn’t insufferable. This is Justin Bieber we’re talking about.
But whether he’s mourning the pitfalls of being super-famous, begging the world to think about the children (?) while raving at the club (??), or alternately seducing his next hookup while flippantly telling his ex-lovers to bug off, Purpose represents an evolution in the musical idea of what it means to be Justin Bieber.
It’s tempting to call Purpose a musical bar mitzvah of sorts, and certainly the bubblegum earworm days of “Baby” are long over—as are Bieber’s try-too-hard attempts at becoming the second coming of Usher or Chris Brown, all of which were about as embarrassing as any teen’s aggressive efforts to come off older than they really are.
But while Purpose is a mature, immediate sound, the kind of music adults make and—more importantly—listen to, it’s not entirely accurate to herald it as Bieber’s arrival as a grownup, as a man.
In fact, Purpose’s greatest asset is its unabashed owning of Bieber’s lingering petulance and immaturity, defined by the arrogance that comes along with being the most talked about and love-hated celebrity in the world—and the middle finger he throws to those who tell him not to be that way.
It’s not for everyone. But then again, as we’ve learned over the years, neither is Justin Bieber.
The album begins with a mea culpa that doubles as a manifesto. “Mark my words / That’s all I have,” he sings on the opening track, fittingly titled “Mark My Words”—a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the Child Star Gone Wild antics he’s spent the better part of a year on a publicity tour atoning for but never truly, genuinely absolved himself of.
It makes an already aggressively meta album—a record chock-full of references to fame and scrutiny and the tolls of both—even more meta. The purpose of Purpose is not contrition, or to prove those asshat Bieber days are behind him. The purpose is to serve up music good enough, distinct enough, different enough for us to not care either way.
As much as Purpose is a self-reflection on becoming a man in the face of tabloid persecution, it’s a plea for sympathy for that very thing. We can like your new music, Justin. But let’s not go too far.
Bieber’s new sound, which already made a splash this year with the trifecta of hit singles “Sorry,” “What Do You Mean?” and “Where Are Ü Now,” owes much to the influence of his new-school collaborators Diplo, Skrillex, and Poo Bear, three producers with utterly ridiculous names, but who infuse the R&B-dance direction Bieber has been heading in for the last few albums with surprising and necessary seriousness.
The aforementioned “Mark My Words” serves not just to set the tone thematically, but musically. It’s clear from the get-go that Bieber’s aspirations lie in becoming the musical lovechild of The Weeknd and Drake, but after they shook things up a bit by having Ed Sheeran stop by for a night of kinky pleasure. Frank Ocean might have been there, too.
The song is apparently about Bieber’s ex Selena Gomez, as is most of the album. It is sung almost entirely in falsetto, as is most of the album. It sounds a little like something that might play in the background of a massage parlor on St. Mark’s Place. Honestly, as does most of the album.
“I’ll Show You” is darker, bassier, and more robust. It’s very sleek and very sexy, but also very moody, like it should soundtrack a scene in a movie where the star is driving down a dark road to break up with his lover, staring out the window introspectively.
Introspection is the word of the day on Purpose. Bieber’s tiny-violin lamentations on the burden of being Justin Bieber kicks into high gear here, too. “My life is a movie and everyone’s watching,” he sings. “It’s not easy.” And then, later: “Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing / When the pressure’s coming down like lighting.”
It’s actually an interesting twist on what’s popular today. Most pop stars are boasting about how fabulous is it is to be young and hot and confident and rolling with your #squad while all your exes are making your hotline bling. (I admittedly only understand half of that sentence, but I believe the youths will make sense of it.)
Bieber is the shell-shocked cautionary tale from the other side. Such glamour is traumatizing. Being so great is so trying. Justin Bieber is the human manifestation of the humblebrag.
“I’ll Show You” gives way to the best section of Purpose, the one-two-three punch of “What Do You Mean?” “Sorry,” and, what is about to become your favorite song, “Love Yourself.”
You already love “What Do You Mean?” It’s a dance song for those of us who have no patience for dance floors, who dance just by bopping our shoulders up and down and then giggle at ourselves for such frivolity. It’s dancing for grownups. It’s Bieber for grownups.
The tick-tock of the metronome that keeps time in the song’s driving beat is a clever conceit, echoing the song’s frustration: Guys just want girls to give it to them straight. What do you mean? Just tell me! But the musical nod to the passage of time is especially resonant given the effect “What Do You Mean?” will have on the rest of Bieber’s musical career.
“Where Are Ü Now?,” which is also on the album and still featuring Diplo and Skrillex, sparked the murmurings of Justin Bieber as a legitimate artist, not just tabloid joke. But its standalone status threatened to turn it into a novelty—until Bieber released “What Do You Mean?” and truly announced himself as someone who is going to take his music as seriously as he obviously takes himself.
“Sorry” is Purpose’s most playful song. The track’s tropical flair gives lyrics like “Is it too late to say sorry now?” an insincerity that’s really funny. The song is actually an exercise in indignance and ego-stroking masquerading as an apology track. “Is it too late to say sorry now?” Bieber asks, while dancing away. Translation: “Because, basically, I don’t give a shit.”
There’s similar cheekiness on “Love Yourself,” a song that at first blush resembles Bieber’s best attempt at an earnest Ed Sheeran/John Mayer-esque breakup ballad. But the lyrics are hilariously selfish. There’s no heartbreak here, just LOL-worthy spite.
“My mumma don’t like you and she likes everyone,” he sings, one of the song’s devilish sweetly-delivered burns. “If you like the way you look that much,” he goes on, “Baby, you should go and love yourself.” It’s not so much a breakup song as it is a fuck-off song. It’s brilliant.
This is where it becomes clear that Purpose has 19 tracks. That is a lot of tracks. None of the songs are bad. All of them take special care in being musical and carefully produced.
That impressive ambition graduates songs like the R&B-tinged “Company,” the retro-pop “Been You,” and the interchangeable “Get Used To It” and “Trust” from filler status to solid B-tracks.
Still, there’s a bit of arrogance to the 19 tracks. It’s like Justin Bieber, the public persona. First, it’s intriguing and amusing. Then it’s just exhausting. It’s a tone-deaf overstayed welcome from the guy who’s never understood when he has a good thing going and to just let be.
Leaked nude photos garner sympathy for a celebrity whose privacy has been invaded and perverted, with the public raising an eyebrow over that surprisingly big penis. So how does Bieber respond to such rare public goodwill? He groaningly talks about the photos’ “shrinkage.” Consider the second half of Purpose Bieber’s shrinkage.
Take “Purpose,” for example. The song that gives the album its title is sweet and more classically Bieber-esque than maybe any of the other tracks on the album.
“You’ve blessed me with the best gift I’ve ever known,” he sings. “You give me purpose.” It’s a rare moment of earnestness. You can envision putting on your state school hoodie, picking up your guitar, and crooning it on the quad sophomore year while Karen and Megan sway and swoon. But beyond its pleasantness, there’s no real there there.
“Life Is Worth Living” is plagued by the same neutered sincerity of an artist who thinks himself more grown and wiser than he is. “Only God can judge me,” he sings. “Life is worth living another day.” Nice. Also, ugh.
With the exception of “No Sense,” which is a sex song—like a sex song—in the Beyoncé on Beyoncé vein, platitudes reign on the latter half of Purpose. It’s hard to decide when it jumps the shark. “Children” is certainly one contender. It is a bonkers club banger that practically shoots glow sticks through your speakers. But the lyrics—oh dear lord, these lyrics—are full-blown Michael Jackson “Heal the World” schmaltz.
“Look at the children we can change,” he sings. “What about the vision? / Be a visionary for a change.” Woof. But then there’s “All In It,” which, aside from an acoustic version of “What Do You Mean?” that follows, closes the album. The twinkly, treacly, self-searching ballad ends with spoken word. Yes, spoken word. Here it is in full:
“Growing up I always felt like I had to be the best at everything because I just didn’t think I was good enough. And maybe if I was good at something that I’d get recognition from that. I quickly found out that I wasn’t going to get the recognition that I wanted or that I needed. Because people aren’t perfect. By not being perfect you sometimes can disappoint people. With God, it’s like, He’s perfect and He never disappoints. So I just get my recognition from Him and give Him recognition.”
AND THAT’S HOW THE ALBUM ENDS.
So what are we to make of Justin Bieber’s purpose, as told through Purpose? Apparently that he is God? Or that God is the biggest Belieber? Oh lawd.
While listening may not be the religious experience Bieber himself seems to have by the end, it does represent a transformation of pop music’s biggest supervillain into a respectable pop artist.
Purpose manages to be self-serious without being totally insufferable, using reflective lyrics and some sonic introspection to make some intimate points about celebrity. Plus, the whole thing has a good sense of humor about itself—at least up until the end.
Is Justin Bieber all grown up? Oh, hell no. But in announcing the next, possibly great male pop artist, his album certainly serves its purpose.