"Purpose" struggles to satisfy
Justin Bieber’s return to prominence in 2015 has been as engaging as it has been genuinely surprising. With any great fall in popular culture, there must be a rise to follow; but for Bieber to spend 2014 constantly in the headlines for everything but his music, just to turn it around and become a more prominent figure in music than ever in 2015 could not have been predicted. Bieber’s turnaround started with “Where Are U Now,” his cameo on “Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack U.” It was certainly not the first good song Bieber had put out, but it was the first that had been universally accepted as so. It Trojan-horsed Bieber back onto the radio and allowed people to save face by accepting the troubled Canadian into their hearts while pretending just to like Skrillex and Diplo. The lineage of “Where Are U Now” can be traced all throughout Bieber’s fourth studio album, “Purpose,” and it’s a better album for it.
The album starts off on an unsustainably strong run: after album opener “Mark My Words” — more of a mission statement than a full-blown song — “Purpose” first burns through the four singles released previous to the album, including the biggest song of Bieber’s career, “What Do You Mean?," and arguably the best song of the year, the Skrillex-produced “Sorry.” These are expectedly two of the best songs on the album.
“What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” are both great songs but exist within boundaries that it’s unsurprising to hear Bieber succeeding in. They are both descendants of “Where Are U Now” in different but obvious ways: “What Do You Mean?” finds its roots in the subtleties of Skrillex and Diplo’s track, where as “Sorry” indulges in its explosiveness. “What Do You Mean?” is an adult pop-ballad with forward propulsion; “Sorry” is an unabashed banger.
The final single, “Love Yourself,” released just a day before the album, succeeds in a way I never expected from Bieber. In the past, Bieber thrived when he was goofy and innocent (“Baby”), sensual/imitating Justin Timberlake (“Boyfriend”) or braggadocious (“Confident”). He had never found fertile ground in being serious, until he and Ed Sheeran co-penned “Love Yourself.” It makes sense, as the song is built around the most resonant line Bieber has crooned in his career: “My momma don’t like you and she likes everyone/ and I don’t like to admit that I was wrong.” Bieber drives home the emotion with his strongest vocal performance on the album.
“Purpose” follows up its excellent run of singles with another strong track, R&B banger “Company.” After that is where “Purpose” begins to stumble.
“No Pressure” features a mediocre melody and vocals and highlights one of the major weaknesses of the album: its guest list. Any redeemable elements of “No Pressure” are overshadowed by an absolutely atrocious cameo from Detroit person and alleged rapper Big Sean. “I know you don’t wanna talk right/We’ve been on and off like crosslights/You heard I’m playin’ with them hoes like I golf, right?/When I touch you I get frostbite/Girl you’re so cold, so cold, so cold” are the real, actual first bars of Sean’s verse. The only other rapper who appears on the album is Travis Scott, a hot name who is out of place on the album and under-performs on “No Sense.” After Bieber’s great 2013 mixtape, “Journals,” featured excellent turns from Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne, and Future, I expected better.
Really, the only positive of the back half of “Purpose” — besides a surprise cameo from “Where Are U Now” — is the Halsey-featuring “The Feeling.” The most unique song on the record and the only album cut that can truly hang with the singles. Other than that, we get “Life Is Worth Living,” a ballad which is equal parts silly and boring. Album closer “Purpose” suffers from the same over-sentimentality, even before it transitions from song into an emotional and confusing speech from Bieber. “Children” is abysmal lyrically and lacking an interesting melody but is redeemed by a hell-of-a beat from Skrillex.
It’s a disappointing development for the most anticipated pop record since Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It really speaks to the game of setting expectations in pop music. If “What Do You Mean?” had been the only song released previous to the album, it’s likely it would inspire a much stronger reaction. But the audience’s relationship to the album is bound to be different when they have already heard 5 of the 6 best songs on the album.
Instead of being disappointed though, return to late last year, when Bieber’s stock was at an all-time-low. He had just released “Home To Mama,” a song which made no waves whatsoever. Back then, there was no reason to think Bieber could release a record as fun, charming, and versatile as “Purpose” mostly is. Maybe he and Scooter Braun did a poor job managing expectations by releasing all of the best music before the album dropped. But maybe it’s our fault; maybe we should have looked at that absolutely horrendous album cover and thought, “Well, there’s a chance Bieber has some growing left to do yet.”