Canadian popstar seeks to redeem with new album
THE SANTA CLARA
November 12, 2015
I’m jealous of Justin Bieber. Homeboy is less than four months older than me, but has rubbed elbows with all my heroes, is worth $200 million and routinely gets paparazzi’d with women who would only come into my room on a poster. And these are superficialities, but until I have been lavished with the spoils of unimaginable wealth, I won’t stop believing, deep down, that those things will make me happy — no matter how many TED talks or Buddhist koans say otherwise.
Bieber became enviable as Youtube’s first bonafide star, flipping some pre-pubescent covers into a spot under Usher’s cologned, leather wing. His seven-song debut EP, “My World” went platinum. All seven songs charted. No other musician has done that on their first try.
“My World 2.0” had the immortal “Baby,” which made Bieber a superstar and bought Ludacris’ street cred for the dumptrucks of money that song made/is making/will forever make. His third number one album, “Under the Mistletoe,” was a Christmas collection. In the music video for “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” he dueted with Mariah Carey and wore diamond studs and a plump fauxhawk. That’s a little thing called winning and losing at the same time.
Then he shifted from teeny pop to dancey R&B. His fourth chart-topper, “Believe,” featured collabs from Drake and Nicki Minaj, but its timeless contribution is “Boyfriend.” On the whistling, strum-sampling, hip-pop ballad, Bieber limply experiments with pseudo-rapping and “swag” adlibs, but also hits a hook with mountain spring clarity and crispness.
He last put out music in 2014 with the sort-of mixtape, “Journals.” There, he looked pulseless alongside more tenured stars like R. Kelly or Lil Wayne and more dynamic talents like Future or Chance the Rapper.
Nobody paid attention to this release because his music has been overshadowed by the heel turn that has dominated news cycles. Whether he’s cheating on Selena Gomez or rocking full-diaper leather joggers or smirking in his mugshot after getting busted for weed, Bieber has given us the raw ingredients for several gallons of ice cold haterade. Folks want this precocious wunderkind ripped from his goose-feathered perch and brought down to our grubby level. They want him to fall. Hard.
But I can’t blame Bieber. I have uploaded little comedy shorts to Youtube. What if, in the unlikeliest of unlikely scenarios, I had been discovered like he was, and got an offer to fly out to Hollywood to star side-by-side Jack Black and Will Ferrell in a feature film?
And what if that picture broke box office records, and so did my next three movies, and every girl my age went Pentecostal every time they saw me, and I had seven zeroes in my bank account, and knew all the relevant people, and never heard the word “No,” and lived in luxurious coastal mansions, and sat courtside during the NBA Finals, and drove everywhere in zippy foreign whips and ate only Michelin starred meals? I’d be as bratty and big-headed as Bieber. Worse probably. Everyone would. Bieber spent his formative years with the power of a pharaoh and we expected even a shred of humility to remain? Please.
Whether he needed to or not, Biebs has shown contrition for his boorishness. He tried to pay penance at a Comedy Central roast, but his duplicitous, look-at-me-I-can-take-a-joke publicity motives were obvious and shredded by Hannibal Buress.
Bieber’s only reprieve is making music. As it ever was, and ever shall be, talent trumps all transgressions. Ask Kanye, Lebron or Steve Jobs. If you can crush it, you can be a jerk. In related news, Bieber’s new album, “Purpose,” comes out on Nov. 13, the day after this article gets printed.
The biggest single to surface, “What Do You Mean” is marshmallow-whipped, tropical house with bouncy flute puffs and a ticking clock supplying the downbeat. It mirrors a Bieber collab with Skrillex and Diplo, “Where Are Ü Now,” a trippy, whining groove with PVC-pipe drums that used Bieber croons as the requisite disembodied vocals of any EDM hit.
“Purpose” lacks the big-name rap and R&B collaborators of the past, only calling on comparatively smaller figures like Big Sean and Travis Scott. The main assist comes from the producer of four songs, Skrillex. And if this is significant of a new direction, then, like many of Bieber’s other career choices, it’s smart.
Bieber lacks the swinging-past-his-knees swagger of hip-hop. He doesn’t have a soul-tingling bedroom voice. And he can’t return to his kid-pop roots. But in EDM, Bieber’s lackluster emotions are fine. His crystal coos can lurk in the thick grass of bangers. He’ll sound downright soulful juxtaposed with robotic compositions.
He could become a crossover hit not seen before. EDM is mainstream, but producers dominate the genre. There is no singing face of the movement and Bieber’s cliche-spouting pipes are overqualified for the job.
The Canadian import doesn’t plunge deep. He doesn’t unravel complicated morals. He doesn’t paint nuanced portraits of people, places or things. Rather, he makes trite platitudes meaningful. He sprays pop sugar. And those same sweet-toothed girls who went gaga for his early stuff are college-aged now. Their sunny Saturdays marinate in the plink and plonk of vacuous, but fun EDM.
Bieber can evolve with his market. He has the edgy, but pretty aesthetic of big DJs. The internet overflows with crack producers who can craft crunchy grooves to cohere to his lush vowel sounds. He could continue doing gargantuan numbers. Or EDM could reach its saturation point and die harder than disco. Bieber’s risky reinvention could flop and he’d have a future of anchoring VH1 love-finding shows. I don’t envy that.
Contact John Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.