Just how fast is Justin Bieber allowed to grow up? And how much? Bieber, the defining teen star of recent years, turned 18 in March and has been in the public eye for almost four years, long enough to begin chafing.
His desire to move in the world as an adult is palpable, but the very scale of his celebrity exacts its own sort of toll. Bieber can be his own man, sure, so long as he continues to belong to everyone else too.
As much as Bieber is pop music’s teen prince, he is also one of its victims. Bieber is in the difficult position of having a tremendous amount of capital to spend and only a few acceptable ways to spend it. He’s an R&B aspirant trapped in a pop universe, and subject to its whims.
A pop star at his level has fewer options than you’d think. To make an album somehow out of lock step with the sounds of the day, and potentially come off as misdirected would be to risk leaving food on the table. By that measure, ‘Believe’ (RBMG/Island) — his second full-length album which was released recently — is gluttonous, full of savvy compromises: between Bieber’s natural gifts and the exigencies of radio; between warm, intimate vocals and music designed for arenas and nightclubs and arena-size nightclubs; between Bieber’s beloved R&B and the dance-oriented pop that’s currently in vogue.
His first full-length album, ‘My World 2.0’, was R&B at its core, only occasionally deviating from theme. But the rise of pummelling dance music as a mainstream aesthetic leaves Bieber, whose voice is sweet but not rickety, in an awkward position. Suddenly he has to find a way to mesh his delicate voice with music that’s designed for subwoofers and Red Bull cravers.
He’s tried this before. Singing the hook of Far East Movement’s dance-rap club anthem Live My Life, which was a hit this year, Bieber sounded bored, stripped of his beloved melisma, his gentleness no match for the song’s relentless synthetic thump.
It’s telling that All Around the World, the first song on ‘Believe’, opens with a synth progression that could have been lifted straight from an Afrojack or Laidback Luke production. And this on a song that features Ludacris. Again, Bieber is buried in the mix, and it appears the album might get away from him in a swell of concessions.
But that’s followed by Boyfriend, the first single, which shifts gears radically, and impressively. Spooky and minimal, it’s Bieber’s formal coming-out party as an adult: hip-hop buzzword filigree, his dampest sounding vocals and whispered come-ons that most recall the naughty Ying Yang Twins hit Wait (The Whisper Song). Erotic and also cheerily naive, it was the perfect statement for a young man learning to behave like a grown-up in the public eye, making for one of this year’s most electrifying singles.
Those are, in essence, this album’s poles, the two impulses it needs to reconcile. Sometimes it takes on both at once, like on As Long As You Love Me, in effect a dubstep love song, with Bieber reaching into falsetto at points without losing power, and showing restraint at the chorus, laying out the obstacles that love can overcome: We could be starving/ We could be homeless/ We could be broke.
Take You also vacillates between up-tempo R&B and dance music theatrics, rendering Bieber all but anonymous.
But there are several places on this album where Bieber strips away that artifice and leans on his instincts, spotlighting his best self. ‘Believe’ is a king-size ballad where he sings unfettered: There were days when I was just broken, you know/ There were nights when I was doubting myself/ But you kept my heart from folding.
That’s matched in intensity by the sun-dappled teen-crush soul of Catching Feelings and Be Alright, a guitar-driven number that recalls the Tony Rich Project, the underappreciated neo-soul classicist of the mid-1990s.
These are this album’s high points. And while Bieber and his producers largely find ways for him to work within a dance music framework without violating his soul principles, he still sounds more distant and less comfortable in those places.
This album’s most dance-oriented and least successful moments illustrate just how hard it is for one artist, even one with the impact of Bieber, to shape the sound of pop music alone. He’s a big wave, but he’s not the whole ocean. And besides, the real experimentation and innovation is happening on the female side of pop, in the music of Katy Perry, Kesha and Rihanna. Bieber is moving slowly by comparison — and given where his strengths lie, wisely so.
The recent resurgence of boy bands notwithstanding, it remains an extraordinarily starved environment for young male pop stars. Bieber has the turf almost wholly to himself. Granted, a certain per cent of his appeal comes down to pure hormones; he could release a country-meets-trance album and not alienate many of the young, female fans who are lining up to buy his posters and his fragrances too. But the screams are so loud they virtually block out the singing altogether.
Which is a shame, because Bieber is developing into a gifted vocalist, far less reliant on technology than he was two years ago. His voice is limber and wounded, more credible when begging or retreating, than when aiming to steam up the room. Many of the best songs on ‘Believe’ are young-love ballads, the sort that would have been credible for Bieber even a couple of years ago, though he might not then have had the voice to deliver them properly.
And so Bieber is not yet fully grown, and in his real life, he’s been doing his best to maintain at least a veneer of young-person normalcy. His hair, which formerly suffocated his forehead — giving him a signature look he couldn’t shake — is now mostly swept up and back, in the manner of most young bros. When the paparazzi catch him out with his girlfriend, the singer-actress and former Disney star Selena Gomez, they’re doing frustratingly normal things: eating Subway in a park, or picking up Chick-fil-A at the drive-through (though at least he’s driving his new chrome Fisker hybrid sports car, an 18th birthday gift from his manager).
The last male teen-pop star who matured so publicly was Justin Timberlake. Bieber doesn’t have Timberlake’s backbone, or his experience, or his raw talent for that matter. So, perhaps wisely, he’s looking elsewhere for models of how he can publicly mature. Actually he’s aiming higher, conjuring perhaps the biggest and most conflicted teen star of all time, Michael Jackson. Jackson is sampled outright on Die in Your Arms, which borrows its loose jangle from We’ve Got a Good Thing Going, from the album ‘Ben’, released when Jackson was just 13. Bieber hones his vocals into a constrained yelp here, a sound that’s decidedly Jackson-esque, and not nearly as smooth as Bieber’s typical vocal approach.
But the real wink comes on Maria, the final bonus track on the deluxe version of the album. Last year a woman named Mariah Yeater accused Bieber of being the father of her child. It was the first true adult scandal for Bieber, who’s never had to project the outright sexlessness of his Disney-raised teen pop peers, but who was nevertheless still a teenager when the charges landed, and no tabloid regular.
The accusations have since been rescinded, but Bieber uses the situation as grist for Maria, the most aggressive song on this album, and one that self-consciously uses Jackson’s paranoiac Billie Jean as a template. Bieber doesn’t quite have the gravity that Jackson did when he released Billie Jean, at 24, deep enough into his career that he’d doubtless been the target of countless schemers. But still he sounds credibly charged here, the only song on this album where he abandons his familiar vocal caress and still sounds comfortable.
It’ll take a few more years, and a few more conflagrations, before Bieber can make that angst the core of his music. For now, his only real battle is with the beat.