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Justin Bieber Repents and Reinvents on ‘Purpose’

Def Jam
Def Jam

If it ain’t broke, we don’t need to fix it,” Justin Bieber sagely advises on “We Are.”

Unfortunately for Biebs, it was broke. Bad. Smashed and covered in eggshells, actually.

And so, he fixed it. Mostly.

“It,” of course, being his reputation: In the age of the Internet — a time of TMZ, tweets, Vines and Instagrams — nothing is sacred and everything is exploited. Privacy is a privilege, especially when it comes to the realm of celebrity. (Of course, posting your own bare butt is totally your call — a welcome one, at that.)

As a result, it’s of little to no surprise that a 12-year-old Canadian crooner, scooped up after uploading some homemade cover videos on YouTube and molded into a global phenomenon in a matter of years with little-to-no restrictions and the entire world at his disposal, would eventually become a little bratty, act out and — impossibly! — make some real dumb, real juvenile choices in front of our eyes, largely involving eggs, spit, pee and Bill Clinton. Not all at the same time, mercifully.

For shame! By 2014, the world collectively had it up to here with both Bieber and the media’s onslaught of good boy-gone-bad sensationalism. But rather than angrily bite back at the tabloids (not that he didn’t a few times), Bieber decided to put his head down, hide his tail between his legs and say “Sorry” — the first of many times — in what became a year long, expertly executed apology tour.

Justin’s revival (eh heh) came in the form of a string of public appearances, from apologizing for his behavior on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to his Comedy Central roast, during which he allowed comics to skewer him for the evening only to make a seemingly humbled,  heartfelt speech at the end. “I was thrown into this at 12 years old and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. There’s been moments I’m really proud of and a lot of moments I look back and I’m pretty disappointed in myself for…I’m a kindhearted person who loves people, and through it all I lost some of my best qualities. For that, I’m sorry,” he said.

As it turned out, it wasn’t too late to say sorry.

Justin’s fourth studio album, Purpose, out today (Nov. 13), proves that a little public backlash, a healthy amount of introspection and an introduction to some new friends in the recording studio goes a long way. Bieber has rebounded drastically, newly reinvented as a tropical House-pop touting prince with messages that extend beyond his usual “hey girl” heartthrob pop shtick. (Don’t worry, though — there’s still some of that.)

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While “What Do You Mean?” would become Bieber’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100, it was his unexpected feature on Jack Ü’s (AKA Diplo and Skrillex‘s) “Where Are Ü Now” months before that laid out the blueprint for his sonic switch-up: Colored by otherworldly electronica, warm pulsations and distant vocals beamed in like lonely transmissions from the sole survivor of a space mission, the song is one of Bieber’s most captivating productions to date, and certainly one of the year’s freshest offerings.

“What Do You Mean?”, the lead single from Purpose, smoothed out the more experimental edges of “Where Are Ü Now,” but kept the dance-pop vibes coming, armed with an ever-present metronome, a shuffling pulse and an urgent plea for some clarity from an undecided beau. “Girls are often just flip-floppy,” he matter-of-factly explained of the song’s intention on On Air with Ryan Seacrest. (Still such a good quote.) It walked like a hit, talked like a hit — and indeed, it was a hit. His biggest hit to date, in fact.

And then, the perfect marriage of music and message arrived to further sweeten the deal: “Sorry,” an apology-riddled, sweat-dropping banger that essentially layered his apology tour (and probably a voicemail or two lingering in Selena Gomez‘s inbox) onto an unrelenting tribal pulse. The dance floor-ready plea, co-crafted by Skrillex and Bloodpop (formerly known as Blood Diamonds), made for an awfully strong case for forgiveness.

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Unlike the more universally relatable pop of Justin’s previous records, Purpose holds a mirror to what’s become his utter circus of a life — the superstar exes, the scandals, the drugs, the paparazzi hanging from tree limbs on vacations to catch him in a, uh, vulnerable state — and offers his swaggy side of the story.

Except, here’s the thing: Justin’s only willing to apologize so much before he gets a few shots in of his own.

Early on in the record, he unleashes his own form of fury — albeit quietly: “Love Yourself” is a particularly nasty little shade fest dedicated to, uh, a certain ex — or perhaps a wannabe #homewrecker. (Do your social media detective work and draft your conspiracy theories as you will.)

If you like the way you look that much / Oh baby, you should go and love yourself,” he cooly dismisses above a casual guitar melody (a shady reference to Selena’s “Good For You” perhaps, Biebs?), co-written with “Don’t” singer Ed Sheeran, who’s supplied his own fair share of ex tales in song. “My momma don’t like you…and she likes everyone.” Oof. Just ice cold, Biebs.

Justin’s guard is up more than ever, and when met with a genuine soul, he’s flabbergasted — and eager for a challenge, even if it takes some time: “Thought that you were in it for the paper / Never thought I’d take you serious,” he croons on the Big Sean-assisted, somewhat grating “No Pressure.” (Never mind that he was only just pressuring his bae to make a decision on “What Do You Mean?” a few songs ago — girls are often just flip-floppy!)

I’ve driven almost every car / It ain’t the same when I’m without you, boo / Been around a million stars / None of ‘em shine brighter than you,” he further swoons on “No Sense” with Travis Scott, a trap-tinged ode that finds him dabbling in Weeknd-lite levels of downtrodden #FameProblems anthems. But after kicking off the Purpose campaign with all those hot club bangers, hearing him wander into musical territory Rihanna already #unapologetically treaded three years ago feels vastly less impressive.

The album is heavy on features a a whole, although few of them are particular standouts. Nas helps to make an exception with an appearance on deluxe track “We Are,” a knocking, piano-inflected us-against-the-haters plea to ignore the rumors. “The truth don’t make us relevant / Hurts but it’s necessary,” BIebs laments. Want to date Justin Bieber? Sure! Just don’t read the headlines. Sorry! It’s part of the fame package.

“The Feeling,” which features rising alt-pop teen queen Halsey, is another one of Purpose‘s better collaborations. “Am I in love with you or am I in love with the feeling?” the two ponder in unison, teetering between lust or love across the melancholy, atmospheric ode that recalls the stuff of BROODS, Troye Sivan or even Lorde.

As solid as most of the introspective tracks are on the LP, it’s just as exciting when Bieber lets loose, kicks back and finally does get back to his sweet spot — courting the ladies, of course! — as with the Axident-produced “Company,” a smooth-sailing slice of thumping electro-R&B seduction. “Ain’t that serious,” he proclaims. Honestly, it’s a relief to hear in between all the brooding about the heavy burden of fame.

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Between venting and apologizing, Justin also sets his sights on using his platform to inspire in a very Jackson-esque way: “Children,” another Skrillex production that takes a heartfelt message and tosses it into an EDM festival, finds the singer urging us to lead by example. It’s for the kids! Think of the kids! What about the kids exactly? Erm. The kids! Think of them! The sentiment is vague and somewhat silly coming from a newly 21-year-old (perhaps it’d sit better if the lyrics were like Justin’s own take on “Kids In America”?), but the production is sick. He’ll inspire some fierce dancing, if nothing else. (At this point, it should be more than evident that Skrillex really should have just helmed the entire album.)

“Life Is Worth Living,” similarly seeks to make a difference in the form of heavy-handed, albeit well-intentioned #ItGetsBetter balladry. “People make mistakes, doesn’t mean you have to give in / Life is worth living again,” he croons across the stripped-down piano ballad, complete with some iffy religious undertones. (“They tried to crucify me!“) Musically, it’s dry as hell, but will almost surely be an important mantra for some Beliebers in need of a lift.

By title track “Purpose,” it’s Justin himself finding inspiration…in his faith. And suddenly, the album becomes his very own Britney Jean. (Justin Drew, if you will.) “You bless me with the best gift that I’ve ever known / You give me purpose,” he proclaims. The song’s outro, a spoken word from Justin about doing his best, offers the umpteenth kinda-sorta “sorry” of the album as well as some mild encouragement, but at this point, it’s official: We get it, Biebs. You’re sorry. You’re human. You’re humbled. And it’s becoming a snooze.

Speaking of the creator, thank God for bonus tracks: “Been You” brings the beat right back as a bouncy, regret-filled post-break up banger. More anguish, sure — but danceable! “Get Used To Me,” similarly, finds Bieber falling fast for a new flame above a slick, stinging electro-pop sheen. They’re both welcome distractions.

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Fame is a blessing and a curse. That’s not new information, of course: The frenzy surrounding Justin Bieber is no more or less insane than what it is, or was, for Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson. He feels trapped sometimes…maybe always.

Yet he’s using that as a source of inspiration rather than solely frustration, shifting from frothy pop ditties about girls to more introspective, innovative sounds that are now finally starting to match the stature of his celebrity. The musical transition isn’t entirely flawless — the piano ballads come across soggy; the hip-hop moments largely uninteresting — but then, neither has Justin’s transition to young adulthood been over the past few years.

It’s like they want me to be perfect / When they don’t even know that I’m hurting / This life’s not easy, I’m not made out of steel / Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real,” he sighs on the worldweary “I’ll Show You.” It’s both angsty teen melodrama — you don’t know me, you don’t know my life! — and the musings of a lonely young prince taking selfies alone on his hoverboard. Doesn’t inspire much pity? Fair enough, but you really don’t know what it’s like to be Justin Bieber. Very few people in this world do.

My life is a movie and everyone’s watching.” That’s a fairly troubling statement, especially for someone who only just celebrated his 21st birthday in March. It also might sound like a bit of a cliché, but…that’s his truth. What more can you ask of him, really?

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Next: Justin Bieber on Fame: 'I Would Not Wish This Upon Anyone'

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