A version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
By the time Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” appeared back to back on the Billboard Hot 100, numbers two and three, respectively, the 21-year-old pop star already pulled more than his fair share of stunts. However, these weren’t premeditated antics revolving around the egging of a neighbor’s mansion. In fact, his latest romp even alienated a legion of preteen Beliebers. During a rainy outdoor set on Today, a noticeably uneasy Bieber questioned fans, asking them what “[does he] do this for,” just before cutting to a commercial break. It was a strange moment captured on live TV, a rare glimpse of Bieber breaking a fourth wall clearly existing between pop stars and fandom. And after fans eagerly tried grabbing his belongings in Norway, he consequently stormed off the stage—an incident tabloids had no problem dismissing as tantrums. Ostensibly fed up with his public image, here was an artist signaling their inevitable breaking point. In turn, the material on Purpose marks Bieber’s fateful step towards an independent personality—free of inhibitions, unconcerned with teeny-bopper conventions—and except for some middling moments, it’s mostly successful.
As an electronic dance music showcase, Justin Bieber’s fourth studio album, and first with revered label Def Jam, is a slick set of songs that’ll quench any thirsty Milennial looking for the latest advancements in popular music. Although Purpose is certainly Bieber’s story to tell, Skrillex—producing five out of thirteen songs here—also finds a redemptive arc on the album. Abandoning the brostep template he helped pioneer, which left an indelible sonic imprint on the last decade, the EDM producer wisely turns in his overwhelming “wobble” basslines for loose percussion and alluring chord arrangements. It’s Skrillex’ production on Purpose’s half dozen songs that provide Bieber with the contemporary soundtrack he needs—for the first time in his musical career—to develop a clear narrative. Furthermore, the production’s noticeably roomy, giving one of the world’s biggest pop stars free reign to explore his burgeoning creativity. It’s moments like on “I’ll Show You” where Bieber gets to flex an intoxicating blend of vocal melodies and rhythmic hooks over a cascading waterfall of gorgeous synth leads.
By sticking with the framework that’s been carefully established by a trio of exciting hits (“Where Are Ü Now,” “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry”), Purpose in turn lays down a solid foundation for Bieber to exercise newfound moxie—a brick and mortar that’s free of rudimentary teen pop. Throughout, Purpose reflects the next chapter in Bieber’s young life; finally turning the page on the endless Ellen DeGeneres jokes and Selena Gomez rumors, and slowly entering adulthood which at once can be an exciting and confusing time. And like many child stars before him, Bieber had to grow up gracefully in the public spotlight in order to survive. Appropriately, Purpose discovers Bieber contemplating his existence in a world coming off one seemingly catastrophic event after another, and where social media rapidly closes in on sweeping reality under the rug. “Cause life’s not easy, I’m not made out of steel,” he sings with a slight tremble in his voice, and for once his impenetrable celebrity veneer begins to slip, revealing that he is human after all.
Indeed Purpose is loaded with cheesy lyrics that can read like an introductory course to pop existentialism. It’s the sort of aimless navel-gazing you’ll find scattered on just about any 20something’s Tumblr page—directly atop a string of black-and-white sex GIFs and Beyoncé quotes. While it’s certainly refreshing to hear a superstar being human—you know with “feelings” and stuff—Justin Bieber tends to overstep his boundaries as a celebrity. Ultimately he still is a multimillion dollar enterprise, something society cannot shake in the aftermath of a crumbling middle class. Furthermore, the album’s biggest crutch remains Bieber’s glaring limitations as a vocal performer, which is only becoming evident with age. And when coupled with dogmatic lyrics (“If you like the way you look that much, baby you should go and love yourself”) you get these strangely offensive moments that ultimately feel displaced among the album’s bright spots; the songs that demonstrate Bieber’s striking benevolence.
Sure, he’s no longer a 14-year-old so belting out “baby, baby, baby oh” in an upper register seems redundant at this point. But Justin Bieber fails to deviate even the slightest bit from airy, almost breathless deliveries on the album’s lesser songs. Albeit an intriguing standalone title, “Life Is Worth Living” props up indiscriminately on Purpose and plays itself off like a mere outline of an idea; offering zero emotional depth in voice or production. Moreover, Bieber’s farcical refrain (“It’s like you’re stuck on a treadmill, running in the same place”) lazily materializing over a flat piano is dead on arrival. You can’t help but feel like greedy label execs were in the studio during these particular sessions, cutting Bieber short any time his voice remotely cracked; a feeble attempt to somehow cater to, and not upset, the endangered preteen fanbase clinging to their “My World Tour” posters from five years back. On the other hand, for fans growing up with—and not apart from—the pop star, Purpose is a foolproof soundtrack to their fresh-faced college freshman lives.
Although Purpose isn’t quite Bieber’s Off the Wall moment the world had been anxiously anticipating, it is an intriguing album pulsating with life—affirming that this is, in fact, an artist worth paying attention to. And with credit to the album’s team of current producers (Skrillex, Diplo, Axident, Blood, Soundz, mdL), Bieber is able to finally find his stride as a budding songwriter. Simply put, he’s far more comfortable riding the beat on the Big Sean-assisted “No Pressure” than murmuring over a stately piano ditty. In addition, ignoring Purpose’s overwrought ballads might prove to be a challenge for many but simply discrediting the album’s handful of infectious songs—like the aptly titled “The Feeling”—would deny both your heart and booty. Perhaps some fine tuning and editing could’ve put Purpose over the top, giving it the edge it needed to be a pop album for the books. But if Purpose is not his Off the Wall then the approach on Bieber’s next album could very well be his blockbuster. Of course, all Justin Bieber’s asking is that you give him a chance. For once.