Wednesday, November 18, 2015

album review: 'purpose' by justin bieber

You know, there's a running joke among music critics that even if you don't like Justin Bieber, he's easy enough to ignore that you don't need to care about him. And really, if you reflect upon the past six years, even during the initial buzz, that has remained true - albeit for completely different reasons.

I should explain, and let me preface this by stating that I've never been one of those guys who really hated Justin Bieber right from the get-go. Now it wasn't because he was making quality - songs like 'One Time' and 'Eenie Meenie' really were awful, to the point where I've never understood why Usher hadn't contributed more to his creative development beyond a cosign and one okay song with 'Somebody To Love'. But even in Canada Justin Bieber could be easily ignored - it wasn't like he was racking up massive hits outside of 'Baby', which outside of a hysterically bad verse from Ludacris it was generally forgettable. That seemed to change with the release of 'Boyfriend' off of 2012's record Believe, which I actually reviewed on my blog three years ago. And it wasn't even like that record was completely bad either - sure, 'As Long As You Love Me' and 'Beauty And A Beat' were both pretty damn bad and the album really had no clear creative direction where to take Bieber's music lyrically or sonically, but it did provide one legitimately excellent song with 'Maria' that showed if Bieber brought real dramatic intensity and tightness, he could be a real pop star. 

And then for the next two years Bieber proceeded to squander that potential, committing crimes, shooting his mouth off, and acting like one of the most obnoxious teen idols ever to be given a microphone. Now this didn't really surprise me - the undercurrent of petulance and ego had always leaked into his music, but I assumed he'd eventually grow into it a bit. But combined with the sloppy release strategy of the underwhelming Journals that had no singles that lasted on the charts, I had no reason to really care about Justin Bieber anymore, especially when Justin Timberlake had returned and was so much stronger. That changed this year, with the release of 'Where Are U Now' with Skrillex and Diplo and his first ever #1 hit with 'What Do You Mean?'. And while neither of these songs were precisely bad and Bieber seemed to have grown into his artistic persona, he also had shown so little personality on those songs that I had absolutely zero interest in checking out Purpose, especially as the lyrics on every single had been straying into questionable places. But hey, I might as well give the guy a fair shot, and all of you kept asking for it, so how does Purpose turn out?

Well, it comes down to how and why you're listening to this album. If you're looking a solid enough slice of modern house and trap-inspired instrumentals where you can tune out the lyrics and just dance, there's a reasonable amount to like about Purpose by Justin Bieber. The problem is that this album isn't just intended to be a fun dance record, but more of a redemption arc for Justin Bieber himself... and it's questionable how much of that works, if it does at all. 

But let's start with the stuff that actually mostly works, which can be centred on the production and instrumentation. The most notable collaborator across this record is Skrillex, and while there are some who probably miss his overblown dubstep days and consider this a sellout, I actually like most of what he's doing here with textured percussion and some pretty decent melodic interplay - I'll give him this, he can craft some memorable hooks from vocal fragments, trap percussion, and an understated piano. I just wish that some of the synth leads that are used for the choral hooks had more presence or better tone, because from 'I'll Show You' to the return of 'Where Are U Now', they sound like a chopped and distorted kazoo, and they get grating in a hurry. It fares slightly better with the horns, especially the lower swell and trumpet on 'Sorry' or the solo on 'Love Yourself'. Personally, I found some of the darker trap flavoured worked pretty well, like on the brittle bass-heavy groove on 'Company' or the muted organs that eventually developed into blocky edges of synth on 'No Sense', even if I did think the usage of pitch-shifted or warped vocals across this album was overdone, especially on 'Children' which anchored its melodic hook in a chipmunk vocal line... lovely. But even despite that, I'll give this album's production credit for sounding really quite organic, and most of that can be credited to the percussion, which ricochets off a lot of the melodic grooves well and on songs like 'What Do You Mean' does have some distinct texture to it - that, combined with a solid sense of mix depth means that for as wispy or synthetic as some of these tracks can be, there's enough to these tracks to keep me interested.

It's a shame it's the majority of what keeps me interested, because now we have to talk about Justin Bieber himself. Now remember when I said earlier that Bieber is easy to ignore? Well, you can say that exact thing about his vocals because they're easily the least grabbing part of these compositions. Part of it is that Bieber sticks to his low-to-mid range and rarely if ever gives an impassioned or raw delivery, but even on the few moments he does he sounds like a low-rent Chris Brown, autotune and all. And that's the other thing: when you build your melodies out of vocal fragments and then pile effects onto your singer, he's not going to stand out as much within your mix and even despite some good harmonies on songs like 'Company', it becomes a chore to follow the lyrics. And it really doesn't help matters that Bieber adds no vocal momentum to these tracks - this record isn't exactly long, but with the extended choruses and the fact that Bieber is trying to sound world-weary and drained, it feels long. And the guest stars don't help - Halsey contributes little to no personality on 'The Feeling', so many of Big Sean's references are corny as hell on 'No Pressure', and Travi$ Scott's heavily autotuned verse on 'No Sense' basically plays like Future circa 2012 except less interesting. 

But now we need to talk about the lyrics themselves and why this album bothers me. See, throughout the album you get the impression that Bieber's looking back on his past few years of failed relationships and running wild, and this is a chance to do some reputation repair, a redemption arc of sorts. Hell, it has to be why he included those two saccharine piano ballads near the end, the latter of which is intended as a direct conversation with God, the only person that can judge Justin Bieber. But here's the thing: for this sort of theme to work you need to buy that Bieber is genuinely remorseful for what he might have done. And right from the first track, you get evidence that that might not be the case, mostly because of lyrical tone and how whiny it comes across. Yes, Bieber, we know you're not perfect and you'll inevitably show us, mark your words, but it's not until 'Sorry' we get anything close to an apology - and even then, it's framed as his partner being 'angry at his honesty' and that there's 'no innocent in this game for two'. It's full of half-measures and frankly the songs get better when Bieber focuses on finding new relationships like on 'Company' or stewing in frustrated inertia like on 'What Do You Mean' or putting his life back together like on 'Life Is Worth Living' - and even then, it's a martyrdom complex and ego that can get a little insufferable. A lot of people have highlighted 'Love Yourself' as the biggest hole in Bieber's redemption, a pretty nasty kiss-off track paired with a muted guitar line that's one of the best melodies on the album - but for as douchey and bitter as that song is, not only is it well written it feels far more honest and real, not just in its detail but personality. Of course, the framing of the song as this generally cheery singalong puts a bad taste in my mouth, but I'd almost prefer it over the pseudo-inspirational 'Children' that tries to be anthemic and doesn't have the frontman to pull it off. But really, it's the title track that exasperates me the most - it ends with Bieber monologuing about how you have to keep on trying hard, but you're not always in the best position to make good decisions and if that happens, don't be hard on yourself about it'. In other words, it's a matter of accepting responsibility, and by evading that, it comes across as unbelievable. Forget the morality of anything he's done: if he's going to set up the album to show remorse and then show nothing genuine, I can't respect that.

So yeah, as a whole I didn't care for this album. Justin Bieber is rapidly becoming the sort of pop star that makes electronic background music, and not in the good way - his vocals are not impressive, the production is pretty good but nothing extraordinary, and the lyrics felt increasingly hollow every time I listened through this album. Not a bad release, which means it's getting a light 5/10 from me, but not a good one either. If you're a fan and find Bieber's personality more interesting, you'll probably like this more, but otherwise, you're safe going back to ignoring him - it's surprisingly easy.

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