Available on: Island LP
You should’ve known it was coming. It’s been suspiciously easy for anyone outside of Justin Bieber’s tween demographic to dismiss him out of hand until now – and the level of hatred directed at him, especially from grown men, seems to have suspicious undertones of unresolved high school angst; aren’t those guys over the fact that all the girls swooned over that cocky little classmate of yours back in Year 8 and not you? Anyway, no one gets to this level of megastar status without either being precision-steered or accidentally landing in quality pop at some point. Having pupated in disappointingly innocuous teenpop until now – before this, Bieber’s second album, his commercial and artistic peak was ‘Baby’, a song The-Dream very obviously knocked o in 10 minutes – it’s time for Bieber to emerge from his chrysalis as a fully-fledged pop star.
As such, there’s almost a sense of relief about Believe, on which – in time-honoured fashion – the Bieber team have corralled producers, songwriters and guests who run the gamut from commercial to credible: Darkchild, Nicki Minaj, Bei Maejor, Drake, Diplo. Lead single ‘Boyfriend’ provides the first shockingly good pop thrill. That Bieber would tread the same path as the other Justin, Timberlake, in navigating the waters between teen icon and respected pop artist, between dorky clean-cut whiteness and the adornments of hip-hop culture, was never in doubt: the lineage needs only to be crystallised in an awards show kiss, à la Madonna and Britney. But the debt ‘Boyfriend’ owed to Timberlake’s ‘Like I Love You’ was as welcome as it was transparent, while its nod towards Ying Yang Twins’ ‘Wait’ was a curveball of startling effectiveness. From the perfect transition from sparse, whispered verses into the chorus’s seductive melody to the song’s sense of its own ridiculousness – “Swag, swag, swag on you / Chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue” mutters Bieber – ‘Boyfriend’ was a flawless statement of intent.
It gets even better. ‘As Long As You Love Me’ is a post-austerity, us-against-the-world electronic storm in which Bieber promises romantic fealty even as he’s buffeted this way and that by a cornucopia of sonic switch-ups courtesy of Darkchild: the 4×4 march leading up to the peak of the second chorus, the way the word “love” is caught, cut up and tossed into a digital swirl until it becomes helpless surrender. Notably and surprisingly, too, Bieber’s own delivery stands out: his blend of puppy-eyed pleading and genuine tenderness on the line “We could be homeless, we could be broke” is the song’s emotional pivot. It’s enough to make you jealous of those terrifyingly devoted Beliebers: imagine how much more intensely they’re feeling this.
Elsewhere, ‘Beauty And A Beat’ finds Biebz daring to mack on Nicki Minaj over what sounds like a souped-up version of Étienne de Crécy’s ‘Fast Track’; her response is to turn her gaze on him slowly, like a dragon awoken from slumber, and devour him whole with a rap in which she manages to rhyme Bieber, wiener (as in, she wants his) and Selena (as in, she has to look out for). The dreamy away-away backing vocals of ‘One Love’ are gorgeously evocative; any putative balearic re-edit will absolutely slay, though in all honesty the song’s fine as it is. ‘All Around The World’ is a sugar rush of memento mori club pop sentiments, ludicrous dubstep drops and Ludacris coming over like an unfortunate uncle tasked with picking his charges up from the high school disco. The irresistible swing and confident strut of ‘Out Of Town Girl’ make for a superior throwback R&B joint that could well end up as the album’s secret keeper.
Inevitably, Believe doesn’t always live up to the standards of its best cuts. On the evidence here, Bieber isn’t ready for ballads in any way. The sumptuously retro Jackson 5 arrangement of ‘Die In Your Arms’, all finger-snaps and chintzy keys, is let down by Bieber bypassing the lyrical sentiments and turning the corn factor as high as he can. The Diplo collaboration makes more sense than you think it does – two cute twinks who trade more on their image than their substance teaming up, who’d have thought – but it boshes mindlessly and laboriously away to no real purpose. Bieber’s own ‘Billie Jean’ rewrite, ‘Maria’, is massively entertaining on first listen; thereafter, any time spent with it and not the actual ‘Billie Jean’ is time wasted. On ‘Right Here’, Bieber enters a whine-off with Drake, but even his callow promises can’t compete with Drizzy’s dreary smear. Even the astounding ‘As Long As You Love Me’ is marred by a confused, limp guest spot from Big Sean: “a Costcutter plastic bag flapping around an epic mountain peak,” as a friend sniffed disdainfully.
No matter: as much as the stereotype of pop albums as singles-plus-filler just doesn’t hold any more (if it ever did), it makes more sense to judge them on their highs rather than their consistency. By that metric, Believe is a resounding success.