Justin Bieber finds himself at an important, but tricky, intersection with his new studio album, “Believe,” out June 19. Now 18, can Bieber transition from his teen idol status to an artist that transcends that nearly unbreachable hurdle?
It”s unclear on the mixed-bag “Believe,” a 16-track collection that takes a certain scatter shot, cut-and-paste musical approach. It”s like that saying about the weather: if you don”t like it, stick around for five minutes and it will change: If you don”t like it when Bieber delves into electroclash as he does on “All Around the World,” then wait a few minutes and he”ll be imitating his retro soul musical heroes on the Motown-inspired “Die In Your Arms” or taking the listener to church on the title track. “Believe” is an album for those with short-attention-spans, i.e., anyone under 21. In fact, it would be fascinating to see if his fans can even digest the whole set in one sitting. Probably not.
Bieber is in the dream business: he wants to love you and support you and remind you that you”d be nothing “if your heart didn”t dream/if you didn”t believe.” R. Kelly”s “I Believe I Can Fly” has nothing on Bieber”s positivity. And that”s not meant as a bad thing. In a craven world, Bieber remains overtly non-cynical.
Pivoting around themes that strike a direct bulls-eye into the heart of his tween/teen female fanbase-almost every song is based on love and infatuation, Bieber continues to have A-List rappers on speed dial, all of whom seem only too happy to pair with the Biebs. On this album alone, Ludacris, Drake, Nicki Minaj and Big Sean show up, but they add nothing other than their name value.
Instead, “Believe” is about showcasing Bieber as a singer. He positively croons on sweet, gentle, mid-tempo R&B ballad “Catching Feelings.”
There”s the obvious comparison to be made with the other Justin- Timberlake-who, himself, extremely successfully transitioned from pop star to highly respected artist before pretty much abandoning music to focus on acting and other endeavors. Bieber, while no slouch, doesn”t have Timberlake”s vocal talent but he surpasses Timberlake in the vital ambition department. For anyone who follows Bieber on Twitter, being Bieber is a 24/7 job. No artist has ever tried so hard to stay in constant touch with his millions of fans and let them know how much he appreciates them.
There”s some delicacy here that Bieber dances through beautifully, to his credit. He may have come of age, but many of his fans are much younger, and he wisely knows that indulging in the raunch that even artists only a few years older, like Rihanna, routinely turn to is a one-way trip to Nowheresville at this stage. To that end, the album is G-rated from start to finish, without ever seeming Disney-fied. That is a noteworthy feat in and of itself. Even on “One Love,” in which he declares he wants to “lie down beside you,” he pledges fidelity.
Bieber”s greatest assets are his likability, his musical curiosity and his almost preternatural ability to balance being a regular teen with the pressures and responsibilities that come with being a multi-million dollar enterprise. The only time Bieber ever addresses such conflicts is on closing track “Maria,” a direct response to the woman who accused Bieber of fathering her child last year. The thumper, which sounds like a companion to his hero Michael Jackson”s “Billie Jean” or “Dirty Diana,” is one of the most interesting musically on the album in part because it”s clear that the incident, understandably, really riled Bieber. There”s a bite to the song that no other material on “Believe” possesses.
For all his rampant popularity (his upcoming tour was a quick sell out) radio has been a little fickle with Bieber. He has yet to score a No. 1 single (contrast that with Rihanna, who has 22 top 10 hits). “Boyfriend” made some headway, but only with a with his label mightily pushing that rock uphill. “Believe” seems to acknowledge that gap between his massive fan base and radio play by containing tunes that would fit right in with current radio playlists, but doesn”t pander to them.
Bieber”s voice is now recognizable, but the problem with “Believe” is too many of the songs sound generic, as if they come from the same music factory pumping out every song on the radio today, except for “Somebody That I Used To Know” or “We Are Young.” Every tune is catchy, but not particularly memorable. There”s nothing on here that comes close to the earworm-ability of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen (who is now signed to Bieber”s manager”s label). Bieber is great at selling sincerity, emotion and inspiration. Now he just needs to work on getting some great hooks.