In the five years since Justin Bieber released his critically-lauded album Purpose, the world has changed considerably. The following year, Donald Trump was elected president; the next, the #MeToo movement rose to prominence, casting light on the exploitative and abusive experiences that women in all industries — but particularly in entertainment — regularly endure. And during the next year, in 2018, the last chapter of Justin’s years-long relationship with fellow pop star, Selena Gomez, came to a final conclusion. After the success of their respective adult album debuts (Purpose and Revival), it seemed Justin and Selena had finally outgrown each other.
Bieber, too, matured some. He was well past the indiscretions and rebellions of his pre-Purpose era, even canceling a massive section of his Purpose tour to preserve his own mental health. And in this newly woke contemporary environment where scrutiny of male celebrity behavior is at an all-time high, being a bachelor, a sex symbol, or an on-the-prowl pop star who romances groupies is no longer en vogue. Instead, Bieber made the wisest, savviest, and potentially healthiest pivot he could: he became a Wife Guy.
Reconnecting with another one of his on-again off-again girlfriends past, Hailey Baldwin, the two very quickly went from dating, to engaged, to married, openly acknowledging the role their Christian faith and community at Hillsong United had on their decision to tie the knot so quickly. Baldwin was 22 when the pair tied the knot — in September 2018 — and Justin was 24. Whether this seems like tabloid fare or not, it’s necessary context for the fourth full-length studio album (not counting a Christmas record) from one of the biggest male pop stars of our era — because the entire album is concerned with his new relationship.
Unfortunately, though his personal life might have shifted quite a bit, tropes of Bieber past abound on Changes, which pushes the metaphor as far as it can go, only to collapse in on itself. “Yummy,” which is, by nature, designed to be a comeback single, was released on the same evening that President Trump authorized a drone strike targeting and killing Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani. As much as pop music can and should be a balm in times of aggression, violence, and horrific political mismanagement, there’s nothing soothing about the repetition of a nonsense word that unskillfully hints at sex.
Since the word “yummy” comprises 60-70% of the song, it’s not surprising that it fared so poorly. What is surprising is that in the wake of the single’s tepid performance, Bieber posted a step-by-step tutorial on Instagram, urging his fans to create streaming farms that would game the song to No. 1 status. His charts competitor, Roddy Ricch, took Bieber’s sketchy ploy in stride, and deadpan tweeted out his own support for “Yummy.” Needless to say, Ricch’s inescapable hit “The Box” topped the chart that week.
Even after the shaky start, Changes is a better album than “Yummy” indicated it would be. Taken in context with other, more detailed explorations of his life with his new wife, “Yummy” is actually an enjoyable, light-hearted album track — it just never should’ve been a single. Sweeter, hip-hop leaning songs like “Intentions” (featuring Quavo) and “Second Emotion” (featuring Travis Scott) are full of the kind of specific lyrics that make love songs relatable (“shout to your parents for making you” on “Intentions” makes me smile every time), and Bieber does better vocally when he adopts a sing-song, half-rapped cadence and has a beat behind him. Though he’s long toed the line between pop and hip-hop, the strongest sections of Changes fall into the latter genre, with appearances by Post Malone, Kehlani, along with Quavo and Travis rounding out his features.
On songs like the album’s title track, “Changes,” Bieber earnestly insists he’s a new man, but we have little proof of that anywhere in his behavior. Songs like “Come Around Me” and “Available” seem to view Mrs. Bieber’s time as a commodity she should spend only on her husband, with actual lyrics like “I get frustrated when you’re busy,” and “You live in my bed.” Later, on “E.T.A.” he commands her to drop a pin to let her husband know where she is… even if this wasn’t weirdly demanding, it’s not the stuff of poetry.
Listening to how much Selena managed to excavate from her relationship with Bieber on Rare, it’s a bit surprising that he doesn’t spend any time at all processing or acknowledging what kind of partner he was before — someone Selena recently described as emotionally abusive. Instead, Changes is completely caught up in the throes of brand new puppy love, mostly told from the everything-is-perfect beginning stages. This yields a couple decent bops, but isn’t really enough to sustain an entire album, lyrically.
Speaking of, the worst gaffe on the record is a Lil Dicky verse on the otherwise flawless “Running Over,” in which Bieber compares falling in love with Hailey to being run over, one of the few songs where she has her own agency. But instead of being able to enjoy the hilarious metaphor, most listeners will be cringing over Dicky’s verse about scrolling back on a girl’s Instagram, getting to 2015, and growing uncomfortable because she “started to look young.” It’s the kind of thoughtless, misogynistic line that fetishizes our culture’s early sexualization of women, the kind that a model who rose to fame early, like Hailey, would be intimately familiar with. But her reformed Wife Guy husband has no problem including it, regardless.
On Changes, Bieber makes big promises, but falls short of them by not backing any of his vows up with actual change. Perhaps in the future he’ll make the kind of strides in his music that he’s claimed to make in his personal life, but honestly, his growth remains to be seen in both realms.
Changes is out now via Def Jam. Get it here.