One of the biggest pop stars in the modern world, Justin Bieber, has had his fair share of praise and criticism throughout his career. Bursting onto the scene back in ’09 with songs like One Time and the infamous record-breaking Baby, Bieber has enjoyed superstardom since the tender age of 13.
After going through his wreckless, out of control phase and losing a lot of respect, the ‘new’ Bieber returns as a seemingly more mature and well-rounded human being. The release of his latest album ‘Purpose’ has convinced many to suddenly become a belieber. Do we by it? Nine Lexham writer Bec had a listen to ‘Purpose’, here’s what she thought.
Let me preface this by admitting I’m not a ‘Belieber’. So, with my lack of preconceptions as a possible advantage, I decided to try to judge this one with fresh ears.
‘Purpose’ (Or ‘Porpoise’, as I will refer to it from now on, due to the predominance of a sound called ‘The Dolphin’ in so many songs) has been described as ‘Bieber’s mature album’. ‘Bieber’s breakup album’. ‘Bieber’s good album’.
‘Porpoise’ has certainly been a success commercially, breaking records in the UK for the most simultaneous top 40 entries from a living artist (eight, in total – although, let’s face it, a lot of these will be ‘bought in’ rather than organic stats).
The record has a contemporary pop vibe. Bieber’s producers Skrillex, Diplo and Blood Diamonds (amongst others) have created a world of thick dancehall stabs, bubbling bass and dreamy, sweeping synths. Emotive piano provides a grounding element on some tracks, and Skrillex’s signature blend of dubstep, trap and hip-hop lends much of the album a drive you can’t help tapping your foot to.
Yet, while these sounds may be innovative for Bieber, they aren’t breaking any boundaries musically. We’ve heard a lot of this on radio and from more experimental artists already, executed just as well or better. Mainstream pop tends to draw inspiration from breakout underground genres, so Bieber’s efforts are more of a slick reproduction than anything groundbreaking.
Bieber’s voice has certainly matured since his debut as a young teen (as you would hope!). His airy falsetto still produces effortless and impressive melismas. Yet there’s a curious lack of emotion in most of his recordings. Any idiosyncrasies in the album’s vocals seem to be derived from post-effects such as autotune and vocal synth sampling, rather than from the artist himself.
Overall, there’s an internal incongruence to this album that leaves me cold. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of Bieber’s sweet, breathy voice against those hard EDM beats that never quite seems to gel. Maybe it’s the lack of personality he expresses lyrically (Who is Bieber trying to come across as? A ‘nice guy’? A ‘average guy’…? It’s difficult to tell). Or maybe it’s the fact that most of the songs, while admittedly slickly produced, never seem to reach the musical apex they appear to be approaching.
Or maybe it’s just the lyrics. According to Skrillex, Bieber has a hand in crafting his own lines (indeed, he has writer credits on all songs). Assuming the words are straight from The Porpoise’s mouth, here are some things I’ve learned.
1) Bieber just kinda really wants to say ‘F*ck off, everyone’ (perhaps justifiably), but doesn’t.
The album’s second track ‘I’ll Show You’ takes the approach, ‘This life’s not easy/ I’m not made out of steel/ Don’t forget that I’m human/ Don’t forget that I’m real/ You act like you know me/ But you never will/There’s one thing that I know for sure: I’ll show you’. Bieber might do well here to remember the old idiom, ‘Show, don’t tell’. What has Bieber shown us in the last couple of years…? Well, he likes to urinate in restaurant mop buckets. He has caused damage to other people’s property. And when his reputation takes a beating, he can always be found conveniently visiting a nearby church.
Justin Bieber’s life probably is not as easy as it looks. All human beings go through hard times. But the vast majority of his listeners are regular people. And regular people do not want to hear about how boo-hoo hard famous, impossibly rich people’s lives are. Unless you’re going to get gritty about it (Eminem’s ‘The Way I Am’ comes to mind), songs like this will just appear shallow and self-pitying.
2) Bieber feels sorry…for himself.
‘Sorry’ appears on the surface to affect a contrite tone, but consider the first couple of lines:
‘You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty / You know I try, but I don’t do too well with apologies.’
Right. Well, this is starting well… It continues later with ‘I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to/ But you know that there is no innocent one in this game for two’. For a track called ‘Sorry’, it’s pretty defensive. The music on this jubilant, jungle-trap track is admittedly some of the strongest on ‘Porpoise’, though.
3) Bieber doesn’t really ‘get’ women.
The topic of Women-In-Bieber’s-Eyes must be addressed here, as the overwhelming majority of content on the album is relationship-specific. ‘What Do You Mean’, while one of my favourites melodically (dat catchy topline!), veers uncomfortably into Robin Thicke territory with its refrain:
‘What Do You Mean? When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no’. Luckily it doesn’t seem to be referring to sex, but it’s a pretty silly lyric. The rest of the song has some lazy writing and sentence structure. ‘You’re so indecisive of what I’m sayin’, trying to catch the beat, make up your heart.’ Er… What do YOU mean, Justin?
‘No Pressure’ seems to be about Bieber allowing his girl to take her time – ‘You ain’t gotta make your mind up right now, don’t rush, no pressure’.
I originally thought the song was about a girl questioning whether to begin a relationship or not. Yet, halfway through, Big Sean swoops in with a rap that flips the tone on its head: ‘When I touch you, I get frostbite/ Girl, you’re so cold…In the bed together, but we sleepin’ solo… Go ahead and take the time, but it’s a waste of time if your waist ain’t on mine.’ Then I got it: this is a sex song, about waiting to go to bed with a girl. It was then that the rest of the song’s self-satisfied,’ I’m-such-a-nice- guy’ tone started to make my skin crawl a little. Would a ‘nice guy’ really go ahead and write a song congratulating himself on his patience…? Big Sean’s addition strips that illusion away, anyway. Most of the relationship songs on this record paint Justin as the good guy, and women as gold-diggers or ‘teases’ – except, arguably, ‘Sorry’, which is still not without its flaws.
It’s entirely possible that, being one of the biggest teen heartthrobs of all time, Bieber hasn’t met many women who are ‘real’ with him. Being a twenty-one year old millionaire, who most people have met first through a screen, must make for a very strange romantic life. Nevertheless, I’ve read about his views on reproductive rights… he’d do well to take a Woman’s Studies class or two.
4. Bieber wants ü to take him srsly.
Let’s talk about the song ‘Children’. It definitely has the most serious vibe of any song on the album – but what is it really trying to say? Justin seems out of his depth here. ‘Who’s got the heart? Who’s got it? Whose heart is the biggest? / What about the children? Look at all the children we can change. Who’s gonna be the one to fight for it?’
Sure, it’s a nice idea to want to change children’s lives. But… why? Who? When? How? And you know, during the entire song, he doesn’t even say anything to suggest he wants a change ‘for the better’. I mean, it’s obvious from context that that’s what he means, but the only calls to action are lines like ‘We’re the inspiration/ Yeah, we can make a difference’. The song is just vague as f*ck.
Taken simply at face value, the lyrics ‘What about the children?/ Look at all the children we can change/ What about a vision?/ Be a visionary for a change’, could just as easily be talking about recruiting kids for the Third Reich. Okay, I know I’m being waspish here, but if this is the guy who’s gonna ‘save the children’, my hopes aren’t too high. This is one of the biggest pop stars in the world! We should be holding him to high standards, both musically and lyrically.
Will any of the songs on ‘Porpoise’ truly enter the public consciousness? Will they still be around in 50 years, 20, even 10? I doubt it. Overall, Justin has made wise producer choices, and it’s evident his sound has evolved. But he might want to take a creative writing class or two, and maybe spend some time exploring the real world.
Artist: Justin Bieber
Label: Def Jam
Genre: Pop / EDM
Highlights: Where are Ü Now, What Do You Mean, Sorry, I’ll Show You, Company.
Lowlights: Children, Love Yourself, Life Is Worth Living, No Pressure… every other track.
This review was written by Bec.
If you liked it, you can head to the ‘The Team’ page under the ‘Contact Us’ tab and read a bit more about Bec.