Justin Bieber has made no bones about the fact that he’s modeling his leap from teen pop star to grown ‘n’ sexy musician after another wildly successful Justin. Unfortunately for Bieber, the circumstances surrounding his transition are wildly different than the ones that faced JT as he made the leap from *NSYNC.
For one, Timberlake didn’t have the ability to transmit every half-cooked thought his 19-year-old brain could muster up to millions of fans and enemies just waiting in his pocket. And he didn’t have the constant media churn that internet news outlets provided. JT easily could have pissed in a mop bucket without us ever hearing about it, is what I’m saying.
So, unlike Timberlake’s seemingly effortless slide into FutureSex/LoveSounds, pop music’s reigning enfant terrible had a lot of apologizing to do before we would accept him as a serious artist. And apologize he has. The Biebz has spent the better part of a year on one long tour of contrition.
When he dropped the third single to his new album Purpose, a song literally called “Sorry,” it looked like the narrative was set. This was Justin Bieber’s apology album, a slab of songs meant to beg fans and lovers alike for forgiveness. But an actual listen to the album proves that Purpose is much less clear-cut than all of that.
The album does kick off with two outright pledges to do better in the future and leave his house-egging ways in the past. “Mark My Words” is directed square at the ghost of his relationship with Selena Gomez. Bieber says that he “won’t let us just fade away after all that we’ve been through,” before promising to show Gomez “more than [he] ever could say.”
To keep the album from veering into Paula territory, Justin Bieber expands his scope to include the fans he’s let down on “I’ll Show You.” This track is less of an apology and more of an excuse – a theme throughout the album – tackling what it’s like to live under a microscope and how pop stardom strips you of your basic humanity. “‘Cause 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,” Bieber croons over the Skrillex production. He admits that “it’s hard to do the right thing” before doubling down on the implicit promise of his apology tour by repeating “I’ll show you.”
Barring these two songs (and “Sorry,” of course), Purpose really isn’t the apology album we’ve been promised. The whole album exists on the periphery of apologizing, diving deep into the reactions that surround and lead up to your average decision to say “My bad.”
There are tracks that deal with the initial confusion of realizing that you’ve hurt or offended someone, most notably “What Do You Mean?” The trop house-leaning single is one of the most blatant and unsubtle examples of miscommunication ever recorded, always coming back to the central question that’s groping to understand what a lover is talking about.
The vast majority of the tracks on the album deal with the apology-adjacent feelings of regret and remorse. Purpose finds a despondent Justin Bieber wallowing in his own navel for the majority of its run-time. On “Been You,” Bieber discusses “the repercussions of missing your loving” and notes that “the ghosts are alive.” Bieber tells Gomez that sunsets, car rides, and traveling the world aren’t the same without her on “No Sense.”
Several other tracks are outright pleas for Gomez to come back. “Trust” asks her, “Did we really come this far just to watch it go down the drain?”
The closest he comes to a real apology on the entire album isn’t directed at anyone on this plane of existence. The title track “Purpose” begs forgiveness from God with the line, “Ask you to forgive me for my sins, oh would you please?” (Again, this album is not subtle.)
I’m not sure we can blame Bieber for not quite knowing how to apologize, though. He’s come up in an era of Drake’s dominance, a rapper who would never actually apologize when he could just sit in his room and feel bad for himself. To someone as young as Bieber, this might look like the default mode of mega-star mea culpa-ing. Add in the never-ending parade of famous folk coming out in press conferences that amount to “Sorry, but…” or “I’m sorry you got offended,” and it’s easy to see how Justin Bieber’s “apology album” could spend so little time actually apologizing.
Of course, Bieber doesn’t have to apologize for anything if he doesn’t want to. But when you pitch your whole album as one big act of contrition, it would help if you made some sort of penance.
It’s not too late now to say sorry, Bieber. But you have to actually say it.