Justin Bieber is a Canadian singer songwriter. Purpose, his fourth studio LP and first in three years, sees him coming off the back of three tepidly received, but smash hit records. A lot of Bieber’s output is in his marketing; the campaign for even the first single of this record was a masterpiece in image management and brand creation. Like Taylor Swift, it’s fair to say Bieber and co’s distinctly capitalist approach to commerciality translates to his music – but not to this album’s detriment. Just as there’s clearly been a decision made to change the way he is viewed as a celebrity, so too has there been a conscious effort by producers Diplo, Skrillex and Poo Bear (amongst 23 others) to craft a unique sound for the burgeoning star – resulting in one 2015’s most left-field A-list releases.
As a conceived whole, Purpose is excellent: likely one of the year’s best paced records in which an album filled with a diverse mix of R&B groves, acoustic ballads, pop bangers and EDM drops are balanced to perfection, without a single lurch or abrupt climax. The sound palette doesn’t aim to cater to a mainstream audience either, but subtly covert it. Some songs here sound like less developed How To Dress Well songs, while even the hits don’t tread the most conventional route. The weird woodwinds and bamboo clatters that litter this album would three months ago be hard to imagine on a pop smash, but now it’s a no brainer – and we’ll probably hear many more of them over the next couple of years. A notable comparison came from another Justin: Timberlake’s 2006 Futuresex/Lovesounds, a similar maturation by an adolescent star that set a clattering, electro-funk precedent in chart pop that has resonated since.
“The weird woodwinds and bamboo clatters that litter this album would three months ago be hard to imagine on a pop smash”
Despite the sonic craftsmanship, by far the single greatest bugbear of the record is Bieber’s voice. At times sloppy, at times breathy and overcompensating – often just straight flat. ‘I’ll Show You’ opens with an absolute bum note; say what you will about commercial pop but that at least is a rare sight. Be it the hook of ‘Sorry’, the entirety of ‘Love Yourself’… Bieber’s voice is often lacking. Add him to the crop of child stars whose voices were actually stronger mid puberty. Luckily the singer comes flanked with an select group of producers who pick up the slack.
The opening track ‘Mark My Words’, for example, sees an incredibly pretty opening motif looped beneath Bieber’s crooning, while his voice is warped into a beautiful arpeggio towards the song’s close. The three big singles that preceded this album aren’t without their flaws ‘I’ll Show You’ absolutely dies in its verses, ‘What Do You Mean’ has that stupid ticking clock – but the pop power of these tracks can’t be denied. Their hooks and metallic melodies are stripped back and nimble, each one a full on earworm. The opening gambit of the record infact sees him coming out punching. No track here bleeds soulfully into one another, each has a unique start, a grand entry – every song a different set piece, swinging for his detractors. “Think that was fluke? Try this. And now this. “
The first stumble comes at the acoustic ‘Love Yourself’, in which Bieber tries to utterly extinguish an old flame’s pride. By going for the a biting takedown of an ex, set to a gently strummed beat – Bieber somehow finds himself in Dylan territory, but next to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘Love Yourself’ reads more like a passive aggressive YouTube comment; possessive of toxicity but lacking in any wit, bite or poetry. Turgid insults like “my mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone” would arouse suspicions that brown-rice-personified Ed Sheeran had a hand in the lyrics long before the liner notes confirmed it. It’s a shame because the gently tapped rhythm of the track and its hook are some of the prettiest Bieber has ever offered up.
Still, it goes over a lot better than on ‘Life Is Worth Living’; where there’s not even an interesting melody to hide very sloppy vocals and truly cringe worthy lyrics. Easily the worst track on the record: he tries to string some ‘cold weather’ related similes together in the way a Year 9 would in a creative writing exercise, and it’s a total train wreck. Next is ‘Where Are Ü Now’ – an inclusion that reads as an incredibly cynical effort to milk the shit out of a months-old lead single from an entirely different release. It features an interesting use of a vocal sample but when it’s deployed to create the same beat drop as every club hit ever, one sort of wonders what the point was. In an incredibly unfortunate behind the scenes video – masterminds Skrillex and Diplo broke down how they tossed it off in two minutes in Reason and frankly: it sounds that way.
“‘Love Yourself’ reads more like a passive aggressive YouTube comment; possessive of toxicity but lacking in any wit, bite or poetry”
This strong opening streak of the LP is unfortunately also mirrored by a three-punch of aborted guest features in the middle of the album. An absolute lull, Travis Scott squanders a chance to bring the eccentric art-trap of his excellent Rodeo straight into the mainstream and delivers instead a forgettable trap ballad, Halsey’s appearance on ‘The Feeling’ is deathly dull and Big Sean has a pointless appearance on ‘No Pressure’, a gorgeous and conceptually strong neo-soul tune that could have been Purpose‘s best track. Sean, one of the game’s least adept rappers, has oft been used on pop records to smear lyrical fecal matter all over a track, and his appearance here is the only instance on the record where Bieber actually indulges in the faux means most child stars use to express their maturity: a rap verse. Big Sean’s dire, atypically off-beat bars here are an unfortunate divergence from what he displays elsewhere through an older worldview and inventive songwriting.
The one criticism that can be levelled at the production on Purpose‘s big hits is a sorry consequence of the fact that they are engineered by EDM producers: the motifs they hit upon are satisfying as hell but in their music they are repeated and repeated ad infimum – fine on the dance floor, but in a great pop song a little more variation is expected – some melodic change up or evolution. A couple of tracks here do resolve that though. ‘Company’ entertains with a lilting triplet of descending hand claps, vocal manipulations and hi-hat flutters while ‘Children’ is the only non-single to feature a drop, and it might be the album’s best secret. The lyrics on this song might be its most endearing feature though. Bieber gets his Marvin Gaye on and sings “what about the children, look at all the children we can change.” It’s as corny as when Gaye wailed “save the babies!” on What’s Going On? but it gives Justin a personality, and putting his neck on the line is ten times better than most of the record where he tries and fails to walk the line between a newfound sincerity and boring old sex symbol posturing.
The album actually closes very strong, with ‘Children’ being followed by the title song: by far the best of the album’s ballads and an evidently heartfelt track in which he describes his newfound faith in God. The song ends with a spoken word segment, talking about being your ‘best self’, and trying even if it means failing. It’s not exactly Nietzsche, but it does seal the impression of a 48 minute record that seems like a sincere effort to create something thrilling and unique. Purpose is a way short of being a great album, but it is one which makes you long for it to be better, rather than one you hope to fail – and that’s to Bieber’s deep credit.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Liam is currently listening to ‘Faggot’ by Arca