- All Around The World (Ft. Ludacris)
- As Long As You Love Me (Ft. Big Sean)
- Catching Feelings
- Take You
- Right Here (Ft. Drake)
- Die In Your Arms
- Thought Of You
- Beauty And A Beat (Ft. Nicki Minaj)
- One Love
- Be Alright
“Hell yeah! Hell yeah, fuckin’ right! Boy, I’ve got your favorite singer really tryna fuck tonight!” This is something that Justin Bieber has probably rapped while pushing his swaggily swagged-out motor vehicle around the greater Los Angeles area, because this is a line from a Meek Mill song and Justin Bieber seems like the type of youth who would be into the music of Meek Mill. I know for a fact that Justin Bieber is into the music of Ludacris, Drake, Big Sean, and Nicki Minaj, because they appear on Believe, his second album and first as a “swaggy adult bro” (this is a thing that he claims to want to be).
Believe is fine I suppose, in that sort of “there was way too much at stake for this to suck” type of way that Michael Bay movies or expensive pornos or dinners at the Cheesecake Factory are ultimately fine. In all likelihood, this album will end up selling a bajillion copies and, after the world tour, will probably put enough spare change in Island Records’ coffers for them to perhaps invest in the sorts of weird, wonderful music that major labels don’t take risks on enough these days. This is a good thing.
There is a tension at the heart of Believe—that of Justin Bieber striving to grow up and enter into a new realm—specifically, that of mainstream R&B and the greater, amorphous world of “urban music”—and that of his record label pushing him to play it safe so as not to alienate his already-existing fanbase. These songs work best when they don’t literally try to jam these two faces of the Biebs together as if the kid were fucking Janus or something. Usually, these songs end up sounding like some sort of bullshit the Trackmasters would have come up with if dubstep had existed in the late-90’s—this totally unpalatable mish-mash of nylon-stringed guitars and dubsteppy bleep-bloop-whomp-whomps. “Take You” commits this crime to a T, almost like somebody showed the dude who produced it a YouTube video of Nas’ “Street Dreams,” then sent them to a Skrillex concert, and capped it off with a text message containing one single, solitary word: “Synthesize.” On the stunning, nigh-unassailable “Boyfriend,” however, this formula actually works. Maybe it’s Bieber’s incessant, nearly innocent use of the word “Swag” throughout his cute little rap parts, or maybe it’s that Mike Posner, the motherfucking pop assassin who helmed the track, is one of the few dudes with a precedent of pulling Trackstep off, or maybe I’m just reading too much into this type of thing.
When Believe works best, Bieber picks his story and sticks with it. He and Drake tag-team the Hit Boy-produced, future midtempo middle school dance staple “Right Here,” which includes the phrase “I just wanna put it on you,” perhaps the first overtly sexual lyric of Bieber’s career. This leads to the second great tension of Believe: Justin Bieber wants to make songs about fucking. If you have read anything about this album, it’s supposed to be his first great experiment in “adult pop.” Justin Bieber turned eighteen on March 1st of this year. Justin Bieber has probably had sex by now. As a child star who’s probably been sheltered for a good portion of his pubescent years, Justin Bieber’s worldview is probably very limited—he wants to be cool in an adult sense, but he doesn’t really understand what that means. Meanwhile, people look to him as cool. That has to be immense, weird First World pressure that the vast majority of us cannot even begin to fathom. Which brings us back to the Meek Mill quote I began this review with. Justin Bieber is down to fuck, and he is down to make some songs about fucking. And he can’t, because he has an audience of twelve year-olds whose parents want them to hear songs about stars and hearts and horseshoes and moons and shit. But Justin Bieber is not a box of Lucky Charms. He is a goddamn swaggy adult male. Still, he has to cloak his true sexual self, bringing Drake and Big Sean to act out his id by proxy, or pull a Kirk Franklin and go off beat to get his preach on during “Die In Your Arms,” or have Nicki Minaj rap something about doing some stuff to him that his girlfriend can’t find out about.
Most of these songs sound like they’re trying to be fifty different songs at once, “Beauty and the Beat” somehow manages to jam a Joy Division bassline, David Guetta-style “OMG I’m on Molly in this weird dance club but wait did the bouncer just sell me crushed up caffeine pills with a little bit of blow mixed in” synths, a Daft Punk-y breakdown, a dubstep drop, and the aforementioned Nicki Minaj come-on. I have no idea if this qualifies as “adult pop,” but it’s kinda cool and would probably be infuriating if I were a second older than I actually am. The Diplo-produced “Thought Of You,” sounds simultaneously like The XX, early Maroon 5, N*SYNC’S “Bye Bye Bye,” and most of Diplo’s other productions for mainstream artists, the Biebmeister adopting a post-Brandon Flowers talk-sing-y cadence and working that little falsetto as if his life depended on it. That’s the other, final thing about Believe: Whether Bieber likes it or not, his only real precedent in this whole game is Justin Timberlake, who with Justified and FutureSexLoveSounds (which both stand as some of the seminal pop albums of the latter 2000s), managed to pull off the type of trick that Bieber would like to attempt with Believe. However, the chief difference between Justins Bieber and Timberlake is that of context and collaborators: Timberlake had just exited N*SYNC and was working pretty exclusively with The Neptunes and Timbaland. He didn’t have the rest of the frost-tipped bozos of his old band holding him back, and he was focused and on-message—he wasn’t just reflecting the pop of the era, he was setting out to make it. Bieber has no group to separate himself from, only his past hits. Employing 24 different producers and even more songwriters, Believe is an album that does not reflect a signature sound, but instead finds its sound by committee. And while Believe might be Bieber’s coming-out party as an adult, only the truly swaggy are bold enough to forge their own paths.