Apologies aren’t fun. Neither is Justin Bieber’s fourth studio album. One wonders why the Canadian pop star didn’t just schedule a very serious and very special sit-down with Oprah to expunge his contrite soul instead of letting music serve as his mea culpa. Because, really, no one is looking toward the babyfaced 21-year-old for an explanation — neither the rapidly-aging Beliebers who brushed off that egging incident as youthful indiscretion nor their parents who find him petulant but rank him high on their “there are worse things my kid could be making me listen to” list.
Purpose aims to present the mature Bieber. The legacy artist, not the teen idol poster boy. The industry power player, not the juvenile delinquent with a trail of fame and fortune-fueled foibles. However, Bieber lacks the showmanship, spunk, comedic timing, or vocal chops of the other Justin (you know the one: the former Mouseketeer who manages to even wow the insular country music crowd at the CMA Awards) to deliver a slam dunk and not just a statement. Timberlake blazed a trail with Timbaland that stretched between sex-addled, funky, and dapper. Skrillex and Diplo successfully serve up twitchy beats ready to incite anything with a pulse, but the sentiment at the album’s core leans toward insufferable.
The slinky “I’ll Show You” begs for sympathy in a way that simultaneously makes you feel sorry for Bieber’s lost childhood and repulsed by his blindness to his own immense privilege. “This life’s not easy/ I’m not made out of steel/ Don’t you forget that I’m human/ Don’t forget that I’m real,” he coos, as if his bottom lip is jutted out in a pout. Lacking defiance or grit, he promises to show us … something? It’s not clear by the final track whether he’s truly turned a new leaf or just gotten better at faking it. The only irrefutable truth is his creamy voice. As Mike Myers would say, “it’s like buttah.”
The album’s thesis statement, “Sorry” reaches out to an ex through a whir of tropical house that should come with a mojito refill. Ignore the “missing more than your body” line (would any girl find that sweet?) and it morphs into a stand-in for everyone Bieber let down: fans, neighbors, those he’s encountered in the legal system. And dare we say God? Bieber doesn’t shirk spirituality; he just doesn’t come to the Lord Almighty loaded down with Catholic guilt. His pathway to salvation, especially on the piano-laden title track, reads like prosperity gospel and sounds like earnest ’90s two-hit wonders Blessid Union of Souls.
The religious fervor is undercut by the cheeky Ed Sheeran collaboration “Love Yourself”, which allows Bieber to diss the bae that got away without looking like a complete jerk. But all the credit goes to Sheeran’s cherubic magic powers. Refreshingly, just a guitar and a lonely trumpet interlude accompany Bieber’s coy delivery. Call it his Sliding Doors moment — in an alternate storyline, he might have made a crackling singer-songwriter. Instead, he opts for the beats. Even fizzy new age woodwinds shoot up to No. 1 on the Billboard charts when coupled with a gossipy arc in the shape of former flame Selena Gomez. “What Do You Mean?” is Bieber’s first single to garner that distinction. Rather than take responsibility for his part in a relationship’s rampant miscommunication, he takes the “girls just wanna be indecisive” route. You could roll the song’s three-plus minutes into one smirking emoji, one with its hands thrown up in the air to impart a sentiment favored by bros everywhere: “Women … amirite?”
Purpose reaches some of the highest highs and lowest lows in Bieber’s career. On “The Feeling”, Skrillex interweaves Bieber’s fallen choir-boy vocals with the ethereal croon of rising pop starlet Halsey against a sludgy underwater environment kooky enough to be confused for an Imogen Heap sample. The chorus alone pierces the pleasure center of the brain. And then there’s “Children”. If Michael Jackson still walked this Earth, he’d go door-to-door hand-delivering free copies of “Man In The Mirror” to help alleviate the scars brought on by this trite attempt at unification. Even when Bieber hits mediocre, he reaches it by stumbling headfirst down a cliff.
Essential Tracks: “The Feeling”, “What Do You Mean?”