Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, John Gonzalez and Lindsay Haddox chat about Justin Bieber's new album, Purpose.
Carolyn Menyes: It has been a very long three years for Justin Bieber since the release of his last studio album, Believe. He's grown up from a teen into a man and in that process, Bieber became less of a pop star and more of a troubled former child star, with multiple arrests and more scandals than singles. We could talk about those scandals and the last three years all day, but that's for another story. Here, we're looking at Bieber's redemption album of sorts, Purpose.
Even the name of this album tells the story of Bieber's apologies. He's meant to make music, not headlines. That's the real Purpose. And, that theme carries through this album as Bieber looks to make amends for his problems of yore. I mean, the second single is literally called "Sorry."
Bieber was smart with his return to pop, playing in to his hit with Jack U earlier this year, "Where Are U Now," and playing into the EDM card. That's where this record succeeds -- Bieber really works in the electronic world. When he strays from that style, well, he falters. But we can get into more details later.
What are your guys' first thoughts on this album?
John Gonzalez: On my first listen, it became obvious that this album was heading a few different directions, but Bieber and co. were smart to build most of it in the same vein as his Jack U hit "Where Are U Now." Openers "Mark My Words" and "I'll Show You" did a great job at setting the stage both thematically and musically, and singles "What Do You Mean?" and "Sorry" fall in nicely right behind.
The Ed Sheeran contributed "Love Yourself" was a cool change of pace and nod musically to his 2014 duet with Cody Simpson "Home To Mama." Bieber is a great vocalist and does well on acoustic tracks.
From there on, the album gets a bit sleepy and alludes to what was probably the album's initial direction, a darker more urban/R&B-leaning effort. Big Sean and Travi$ Scott pop up around here, while Biebz tip-toes into Drake/The Weeknd territory.
The rest is a bit of a patchwork quilt of really sleepy R&B, inspirational songs and some knock off Maroon 5 vibes. I half like it, wish he would have just given the reigns fully to Skillex because that's where this album truly shines. And I could have done without the random Nas feature.
Lindsay Haddox: I agree with John here that the middle of the album does get a bit sleepy. After hearing the singles that Bieber released, I was expecting more of that throughout the entire album. However, I do think that he was able to get his idea of this album through to people. This album was a nod to his relationship with ex Selena Gomez along with him saying sorry for what he's done in his past but now that is all behind him and he is here to move forward and focus on his music.
I commend Bieber for this album because he has been able to make the transition from a teen idol to more of an adult artist. Not only does he have the teens in his corner, you hear his music being played by all types of people. I do think this has to do with him playing the EDM card and I think that has worked for him in a great way. I do wish he would have stuck more to the EDM based stuff for his album because that is where he shines the most. I could have done without some of the preachy stuff like at the end of "Purpose." I also felt that the song "Children" was very random for this album. Overall I do feel that he got his message across with this album and after three years of releasing an album I felt that he delivered with Purpose.
Ryan Middleton: Who would have thought just 12 months ago that Justin Bieber would have been a name that a bunch of beer swilling, whisky-sipping young men would be proud to say they listen to? He was a toxic child star, but the come back, fueled by Diplo, Skrillex and a lot of apologies has been completed with Purpose.
The album seems to have two or three distinct sides to it. It has the Skrillex and Blood (formerly known as Blood Diamonds) produced tracks as the more forward-thinking edm-soaked pop hits, while he does revert back to hold form with some softer R&B tracks like "No Sense" with Travi$ Scott or the more acoustic songs like "Love Yourself" with Ed Sheeran.
The electronic tracks feel like the standouts, not just because they have been the singles thus far, but it sounds like the reinvention that Bieber has been going for and his soft voice flows remarkably well over these types of tracks. Anybody else feel this kind of split in the LP?
CM: To your point Ryan, no matter what he does, Bieber will always have some of that backlash. While some beer-drinking dudes may dig "What Do You Mean?" I actually heard some guy at a bar the other week complaining that "Sorry" was on the jukebox because Bieber was so lame. I was like, yo, this is 2015. Let's get over it.
That anecdote aside, I'm glad we all agree that Purpose is a split album, and I totally agree that Bieber works best when he goes for EDM. I've said this a million times when discussing his singles ("What Do You Mean?," "Sorry" and "I'll Show You") but I love how vulnerable and human he sounds against all these robotic tones. It's a cool dichotomy. Maybe I was naive to think it, but with those singles (and the Halsey collaboration "The Feeling"), I just assumed this whole album would be electronic. So, those R&B songs in the middle were a real bummer. Big Sean's verse in particular wasn't like overly vulgar, but lines like "You heard I'm playin' with them hoes like I golf, right?" and "You know I eat the cookie like I'm Lucious" felt super out of place. Womp, womp.
Speaking of the lyrics, I think Bieber apologized for being a total dick like 15 times on this album. Did you guys get tired of that theme or did you like the personal stories here?
JG: The apologizing is a bit much. While he's doing way better than his mentor Usher in terms of musical content, he could have learned a thing or two from him about how to open up like Usher did on Confessions. Purpose seems to trip over itself in that regard. It's implied that the album is about Selena Gomez but I can't say I really understand the narrative he was trying to paint outside of "I'm a jerk, and I'm sorry."
I'm glad we all agreed the album is split. Like I mentioned earlier, that middle half of the album and tracks "Trust" and "All In It" seems like the lane they were initially trying to go in and even feels like the vibe he was going for during his Journals era. Big Sean's verse was a waste, he would have been much more appropriate on something single worthy.
The other songs at the tail end feel like they were intended for a much more accessible, middle of the road pop album. While the R&B influence on his voice is inescapable, tracks like "Been You" and "Get Used To It" still feel like they could have fallen on a Maroon 5 or Nick Jonas album. I find "Children" super random, weird and uncomfortable to listen to. His voice has too much sadness in it to sell an empowering anthem. Title track "Purpose" is a bit more comfortable, but still out of place. The clear standout on this project is "The Feeling" hands down.
LH: Speaking about the middle of the album and how he went down more of a R&B route in this part, it feels a bit like the old Bieber, like something that might have been included in Believe or possibly in his Journals. That was the time that he seemed to be going down an R&B route, he has collaborated more than once with Big Sean, so I see why he is on this album, but I kind of feel that this song was maybe recorded at the very beginning of the process of making this album.
Also, for an album that was focused on apologizing and loosely touching on his relationship with Gomez, "No Sense" seemed very out of place and Travi$ Scott is an odd feature for this album. I think that there could have been better features on this album honestly. Ed Sheeran wrote "Love Yourself" and I think more collaborations with him would have been better and like John said earlier more with Skrillez would have been enjoyable.
To touch on the song "Children," it felt very Michael Jackson, done wrong. It was like a "We Are the World" but just weird and so out of place on this album; I don't really understand why it's here. It falls in line with the preachy part of the album that I was speaking about earlier with the end of "Purpose" and "Life is Worth Living."
I feel that he should have taken the last five songs and put them in the middle of this album instead of what is there now and it would have flowed a bit better. I get that over the last few years he has recorded a lot, but the Big Sean and Travi$ Scott features should have been part of the deluxe album.
RM: The big sorry PR tour seems to have spilled over into the album as he is trying to please everyone with these hip-hop verses,some pretty straight forward pop, the EDM-influences tunes and then the soft R&B.
I have no problem with the personal stories, it is good to see someone as big a pop star as him being vulnerable in his music when he could just use some fictitious story written by a songwriter. However that wouldn't fit with what the image he wants to cultivate as an unguarded and open individual.
Also in addition to all of the apologizing, Bieber does have a strong religious component to this LP. Not only is the album cover quite I think this issue is being a bit overblown, but it is another interesting component of the "rebirth" or "redemption" theme that the Canadian singer has decided to go with on this album.
Sorry John, I will let you finish, but "Sorry" is the tune of the album.
CM: You guys are both wrong; "All In It" is the Bieber song of 2015. That part at the end where he just talks about how he can never fully live like Jesus? That's so great! Just kidding; it's weird and a little overkill. If Purpose is about Bieber's redemption, I guess he should look toward God and Jesus. But, I don't know, it makes me feel mildly uncomfortable, like when people preach on the subway or something. "Purpose" and "Children" follow in the same preachy oddness. I get what Bieber is trying to say, but I don't want to hear it from him, at least.
When it comes to my opinions of the lyrical content, I like that Bieber actually poured his feelings into this album, and you can totally tell where his head was at when he recorded Purpose. That's way better than him taking a vapid dance route or just trying to still cater to his Beliebers with singing about how he'll be their "Boyfriend." The record at least feels authentic in that way. But, the message gets a little tired after "Sorry," (which is this LP's best song, John and Ryan, though "The Feeling" is a strong contender). Bieber should have dropped these four songs at the top of Purpose and then thematically moved on. If you apologize 10 times over, it starts to feel less genuine.
As we wrap up this edition of Junk Mail, I'll pose this book club question. Has Bieber successfully done an "adult" album with Purpose? Will that bro in the bar bump to this, or is he still tween taboo?
JG: Well as far as him maturing I think he handled the bulk of that on Journals. If anything, Purpose seems to hang in the happy middleground between the more mature approach to that "album" and the more pop-friendly sound that made him a star.
The reason why the bro at the bar is going to bump to this is because Bieber and his team were careful to market this album in a way that almost avoided Bieber all together. I mean let's be honest, "Where Are U Now" was our first real taste of this project and it was packaged as a Jack U single. He had a bunch of other celebrities featured throughout his album promo, and has dropped over a dozen videos and is only featured in two.
This is the Bieber album for the non-Bieber fan. And the material is actually pretty good, good enough for a lot of people to overlook his crazy antics over the last few weeks. The goal of Purpose was clearly to focus on his music and they have succeeded.
LH: I completely agree with John, this album was not just made for the fanbase he has built over the years, it's meant for everyone, even the bro at the bar. Bieber and his team were smart by having him go down an EDM route for some of the songs on this album because that's one of the biggest genres right now.
Also, this was said earlier, but Bieber isn't singing anymore about being someone's boyfriend. Instead he made an album that meant something to him and expressed his feelings along the way. Do we agree the preachy stuff was too much? Yes. But, it also hits at where he is in life and the moment. I definitely see this as a more mature album than Believe was and you can see the growth in him as a person and musically from his Journals collection as well.
Bieber has allowed himself to move away from his strictly pop days and experiment with his sound and unlike some artists that try to mature, change their sound and reinvent themselves Bieber has done a pretty good job at it
RM: That part at the end of "All In It" where he talks about the perfection of god is a good time to end the album because you just can't put any more music after something like that.
I think the association with Skrillex, which has been touted quite a bit over the past few months with festival appearances at Ultra, Hard Summer, Billboard Hot 100 for example has helped put him in the graces of the BATB (Bro at the bar).
He will never be universally loved after everything that has happened and growing up a teen pop star that everyone's girlfriend wanted to be with, but the man has matured quickly in the past year or so. I don't think this album completely jumps away from the stuff that Beliebers will love. That fanatical fan base will eat up anything he does, even a 30 second SoundCloud clip of him breathing could trend worldwide on Twitter, but the the slower R&B songs, while they may be less inventive as some of the other productions, they speak to his core fans.
CM: Justin Bieber searched to redeem himself on Purpose and after telling his tale and apologizing time and time again, he's done it. Sonically, the LP is a little uneven; whereas Bieber shines on his EDM collaborations and vulnerable lyrics, there's still a part of him that can't fully escape his bratty past and that R&B music he once tried so hard to excel at. What Bieber has done successfully here is not make a cohesive album, but he has become a fully embraceable adult pop star.
LH: Justin Bieber could have arranged this album a bit better and maybe had a few more EDM collaborations, but overall he has gotten his point across. He is sorry for his past and that he isn't here to be in the tabloids for stupid antics, but instead his music. It goes without saying that he will always have his younger fan base, but he has been able to mature when it comes to his music and appeal to all types of people. It will be extremely interesting to see what happens with Bieber and where his career takes him from here.
JG: Purpose is the first Justin Bieber album that isn't going to get that weird double take from people when you tell them you like it. It's refreshing, honest, and does a good job at telling his story while steering clear of the madness. Skrillex and company helped string what would have otherwise been a very random album together with some of the better pop songs of the year.
RM: Bieber found a higher Purpose his new album, speaking from his heart and through god on this lengthy and at times uneven album. it really shines when he goes for the more dance-influenced tracks with Skrillex and Blood. The transformation into an adult pop star has been completed with a Purpose.