Shit pop music normally tries to copy what has been successful in the past, but fails to match that magic. Great pop music tends to borrow from the underground, nicking artists and ideas and repurposing for the wider world: Madonna stole Voguing, 90s Boybands borrowed heavily from cutting-edge R&B production, Beyonce ripped Major Lazer’s "Pon De Floor", Rihanna and Drake covered Jamie XX’s "Take Care", and DJ Mustard went from producing West Coast rap to Tinashe and Jessie J. The list could go on forever.
Fashioning the right Bieber album for right now is a high-stakes endeavour, so it's easy to see how this trend might have played out on Purpose. In the past, he has relied on calling up the coolest producers of the moment to ask what the kids are listening to. But here, there’s a real effort to craft a Bieber Sound, and it works. For sure, there are respectable influences – Skrillex, who produced a bunch of tracks on the record, demonstrates his deftness for swelling beats and weird esoteric percussion – but it never falls back on copy-pasting the Skrillex sound, instead happening upon a new palette specific to Biebs.
Elsewhere opening track “Mark My Words” has clearly been listening to James Blake, with processed vocals and soft electronic piano to create a feeling of why-won’t-she-trust-me despair. “I’ll Show You” has more than a nod to Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” with Bieber introspecting over pitched-up vocals samples and mournful trap drums. And speaking of mournful trap drums, Future’s influence looms large here too, particularly on the stunning “No Sense”, produced by Travis Scott, presumably after he listened to DS2 100 times on repeat.
But Bieber has combined that pinboard of influences with other uncommon elements, and happened on something that feels incredibly distinctive to this record. Trap drums don’t just roll along like they would in a Migos track, rather they’re sort of scattered either side of the beat, often dropping in and out like stabs. Pitched up vocals don’t just sound like outdated vocal production from a few years ago, rather they’re used subtly as echos and backing vocals, given the impression of looming demons. And Bieber is digging in the back of the cupboard for weird instrumentation wherever he can, as well as the much publicised panpipes, there’s a also a trumpet and humming solo on one song.
It means that this record has a sound all of its own, one that a lot of underground producers, as well as pop artists, would kill for. Unlike most big albums of the last few years, which tend to be written by hundreds of people all working on separate tracks with few album-wide sonic identifiers, Bieber relies on a relatively narrow spectrum of sounds here, even though there are five or so main producers. Even certain rhythms, a kind dancehall-flavoured shoulder-rolling beat, repeat throughout the tracks. Whatever else you may think of it, this is a cohesive proper record, and should be judged as such.
Which leaves us at the only question you probably want answered. Is there anything as earth-shatteringly brilliant as “What Do You Mean” and “Where Are Ü Now”. After two listens, I don’t think there is quite, but fuck me does “Children” come close. Another Skrillex production, it sounds like a gabba version of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”, starting with weird, totally out of time synth punch and reverbed clicks and handclaps, with Bieber crying into a wall of reverb, “what about the children, what about the children, can I change”. From there it goes into a mental 150BPM synthy 90s rave thing, like a past you in Gatecrasher on your second tab, before sinking away back into the reverb, sped up rewinded vocals floating past.
The other big standout track, debuted yesterday on Beats 1, is “Love Yourself” written and produced with Ed Sheeran. It’s a stone cold classic as well as being the cruellest pop song in living memory. It’s a break-up song, but rather than the usual “I miss you but we can’t be together” or even “I’m better off with you” the song’s message is basically this “Don’t for a second think our break-up had anything to do with me. You were a fucking nightmare and, by the way, everyone hates you.”
There are turns of phrase in “Love Yourself” (a euphemism for “Fuck Yourself”) which you can’t imagine the douchiest of douchy guys even thinking. It begins: “For all the times you rain on my parade, and all the clubs you get in using my name, you think you broke my heart oh girl for goodness sake.” At times it uses a mixture of hate and shaming to drive a stake through this hot mess’s heart, “I didn’t want to write a song, cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care, I don’t but you still hit my phone up.” If a partner ever truly truly screws you over, like fucks your best friend and sends you the Snapchat screws you over, this is the song you stand outside their house playing before smashing up their dad's car's headlights.
Actually, Bieber coming across like a bit of an arse is the other big theme on this record. Undoubtedly, writers would have been given a brief on this record. It’s easy to underestimate just how insane the past few years have been for Bieber, going from being a tween idol and a byword for innocence, to the DUIs, the racist comments, the arrests, and then, in the past year,clawing it back to have the two biggest hits of his life. It’s unsurprising then, that the brief was remorse and redemption, with over half the songs being some form of apology. But like a naughty schoolboy who doesn’t want to say sorry, most of the tracks show very little humility – rather this album presents an unrepentant and very self-involved Bieber who is often looking to blame anyone but himself. Sometimes there’s a steely swagger to this woe is me attitude, on “I’ll Show You” Bieber asks you to imagine how tough it is for him living this life of bad behaviour, “they don’t even know that I’m hurting, life’s not easy, I’m not made out of steel, forget that I’m human, forget that I’m real”. On album lowpoint “Live Is Worth Living”, a pointless piano ballad with loads of clichés about journeys and self-discovery, it stops being that funny, with Bieber whinging, “they try to crucify me, I’m trying to work on a better me.” The whole record is basically a masterclass in the non-apology apology.
If Bieber wants forgiveness from anyone, it’s not the listener, it’s god. As he's noted in interviews, one of the key pivots of this album has been him more fully embracing his Christian faith, and he proves he's serious about that shift here, often coupling a “fuck you i’m the greatest” head bop with a “apart from the big man upstairs” reverent bow. The record is littered with references to Bieber’s faith, particularly in relation to his previous sins. On "Purpose," there are some lines that are almost a prayer: “I put my heart into your hands / Here's my soul to keep,” followed by a religion-tinged spoken-word outro. This is Bieber’s power play when it comes to this record: first he hits you with the pity, then in comes the left-hook of devout absolution.
But really, who cares whether Bieber is a good guy. What people want is a good album. And whether it’s the spectacularly skittish “The Feeling”, drums and clicks falling around all over the place before breaking into a Disney-esque Bieber chorus, almost mocking of the untrue feeling of love, or Big Sean dropping punchlines like “You know I eat the cookie like I’m Lucius”, or a balls out amazing hip-hop track with Nas that is only on the bloody deluxe edition, it would be hard to claim that Bieber let anyone down.
It’s difficult to know how this record will be received. A few years ago no one would have taken a Justin Bieber album particularly seriously, now the most enthusiastic reading of this record is that it's a total sonic innovation for pop music, the kind more regularly attributed to Quincy Jones or William Orbit.
But as the early waves of poptimism die down, what impression of Bieber will be left with the listener. Is he the devout Christian, the catty ex, or the guy who got away with everything? The verdict seemingly matters a lot to Bieber, but it probably doesn't matter as much to us. We'll delete the awkward ballads as we go, leaving us to listen to a record that bangs hard.
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