The first time we meet, on the set for his Billboard cover shoot, Justin Bieber accidentally moonwalks, Michael Jackson-style, right back into me. It's a moment of youthful spontaneity that at once confirms he's not kidding around about his King of Pop obsession and inadvertently upends the narrative that's being woven about his impending release, "Believe," due out June 19: that this is the debut of a new, mature Bieber.
"We're clearly seeing a more mature record this time around," says Mike Posner, the producer who helmed the album's first single, "Boyfriend," the fastest-selling digital track of the year so far (2.3 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, in 10 weeks). Approaching this new body of work (for which Bieber co-wrote every single track), the goal - according to Karen Kwak, Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG) executive VP and head of A&R - "was him transitioning from being a teen phenomenon to a real adult artist."
Almost everyone interviewed for this piece got the memo about a more mature Bieber. The most recognizable teenager in the world turned 18 on March 1, after all, and this is a pivotal moment as he aims to make the leap from tween heartthrob to enduring icon.
One key person, however, bristles when asked about that transition - his manager, Scott "Scooter" Braun, the maverick who famously found Bieber on the Internet at age 13 and, together with Usher, signed him to a joint deal through Raymond Braun Media Group. "Adult artist? Just because he's legal now doesn't mean he's an adult," Braun says. "He still needs guidance; he's still finding his way. He's no longer a boy, but he's definitely not yet a man." And his music, image and how he carries himself - spontaneous bursts of moonwalking and all - reflect that, Braun says.
Backstage in his dressing room at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for rehearsals at the Billboard Music Awards, brandishing a glistening new rose gold Rolex on one arm, a pair of gold chains around his neck (one with a gold whistle charm dangling from it), Bieber is clad all in black the second time we meet for a sitdown interview-black slouchy jeans, T-shirt and ski cap fully covering that famous hair, only a red bandana in his left back pocket adding a pop of color to the ensemble. Later this evening he'll be practicing his high-jumping choreographed performance of "Boyfriend" that will ultimately net him a "most exhilarating performance" award from fans who voted online during the actual show - it's also the first taste of what's to come on his upcoming 125-date world tour, for which he's guaranteed a cool $80 million. And not without cause: Two weeks after we talk, all 49 North American dates will sell out within one hour, with two nights at New York's Madison Square Garden going in less than a minute. But right now he's here to talk up his highly anticipated (by more than 43.9 million Facebook fans, at least) album, "Believe."
His debut release, 2010's "My World 2.0," and subsequent remix album "Never Say Never: The Remixes" and 2011's holiday set "Under the Mistletoe," all debuted at No. 1. Embarking on his all-important proper sophomore album, he had some formidable goals - not just branching out to new markets and age brackets, but reaching for the unparalleled artistry of one of pop's all-time legends: "Michael Jackson is my inspiration," Bieber says between bites of a Big Mac. "For me, he's the greatest - he's the King of Pop - and everything I do, I do to be the greatest."
To help him fulfill those aspirations, he enlisted several edgy hitmakers, including Posner, Diplo and Zedd - along with pop stalwarts like Max Martin - and settled into the recording studio for four tracks with the man who produced Jackson's last No. 1 hit, "Rock My World," Rodney Jerkins.
The first thing Jerkins did was show his new wunderkind never-released footage of Jackson in action in the studio. "I wanted him to see Michael's passion in the studio - we all know he had that passion onstage in front of 60,000 people, but he also had it alone in the booth. I've been fortunate enough to work with a few greats that had that passion, so I know what it is when I see it. And Justin has what it takes, absolutely."
Bieber's directive was clear to Jerkins: pop with urban elements. "Because he's also a drummer, he wanted to make sure that the rhythms were there as well as the pop melodies on top. We really focused on those combinations," Jerkins says.
"As Long As You Love Me" - Bieber's personal favorite track on "Believe" - is a perfect example of a song that will speak to his core fans with its indelible melodies, and has the ability to reach new listeners, says Jerkins, who added dubstep sonics to the production on Bieber's urging. "There's nothing like it," says Bieber, who got hooked on dubstep on a trip to London, where it was all over the airwaves. And from the global dance beats pulsing throughout many of the album's tracks, it sounds like his mentor Usher's recent work has also left an imprint on Bieber.
But for Jerkins, the most significant of their collaborations is "Die in Your Arms," which clearly evokes a young Jackson and focuses on Bieber's voice. "The mission on that one was to have Justin make a statement vocally," Jerkins says. "In making this transition, the one thing he has to prove to people is, 'Listen, I'm a real singer.' This isn't about three notes here; this is about him showcasing his voice. It's not the easiest song to sing-it's a real singer's song with Sam Cooke-style melodies in the chorus. And he nailed it."
While making this leap, understandably there are going to be some growing pains along the way. Bieber and his team smartly got ahead of the game by allowing him to be shown having taken a physical beating in a Complex magazine cover that featured the squeaky clean singer with a black eye, ravaged to a highly stylized pulp in a boxing match. In a recent GQ profile he took a different kind of drumming, the magazine using the pop star as a bit of a punching bag. But it's all par for the course for a guy whose career was birthed online.
"No one in the history of the world has ever grown up with the pressure that he has, being a solo artist that young, that famous, in a world with technology that exposes us 24-7," Braun says, noting that unlike Jackson, who had his brothers behind him, or Justin Timberlake, who could rely on the support of his fellow 'N Syncers, Bieber went it alone - in an unprecedented era of Twitter, Facebook and camera phones. "He was literally going through puberty in front of the entire world, with everyone expecting something from him and a lot people waiting for him to screw up. He's a fighter. I'm proud of him - how's he's stayed true to himself and taken control of the entire situation."
Even the coolest of heads can lose it when confronted with the paparazzi, though. Bieber made news on May 27 when he got into a scuffle with a photographer who reportedly blocked his way as he and girlfriend Selena Gomez were exiting a shopping mall parking lot in Calabasas, Calif. Still, Bieber remains steadfastly appreciative on the pros and cons of growing up in this hyper-digital era.
"Your life is out there a lot more, especially nowadays when everybody has a HD camera phone on them at all times," Bieber says. "But my whole career launched from the Internet, so without it, I feel like I wouldn't even be here. I owe a lot of my success to social media, to Twitter, to YouTube and Facebook. It is also a great way to interact with fans."
And, by this point, he's a pro at it, on the front lines himself in rallying the Beliebers for the launch of "Believe." With more than 22.3 million followers on Twitter, it's no surprise he took home the gold trophy for top social artist at the Billboard Music Awards. "For Justin in particular, it really all starts with the fans," IDJMG VP of marketing David Grant says. "He engages with them on a daily basis through his social media."
That's been extremely useful to the label, says IDJMG president/COO Steve Bartels, who points out that the fans have been integral in the marketing of this album since before the first single was even available.
"Justin's fan base is very loyal and it is about giving them the opportunity to be involved in the social media campaigns," Bartels says. "For example, we encouraged the fans to choose Justin's single artwork for 'Boyfriend.' [They voted on two options through Twitter using hashtags.] This is one small example of how we keep the fans very involved in many aspects of the campaign. Their opinions matter to Justin, and to us." (Those opinions matter to Billboard as well-Bieber fans chose which cover image adorns this issue through Facebook.)
The label plans to continue to stoke fan excitement right up through the week of release. The Believe: All Around the World campaign will see the global phenomenon jet set from Oslo, Paris and London to Mexico City and New York - in addition to stops in Italy, Spain and Germany - on a promotional and unannounced live concert tour that's being documented for an NBC TV special of behind-the-scenes and concert footage, airing June 21. Beliebers get a front-row seat throughout the journey: Through social media "he'll be able to take them on tour with him," Grant says. "He'll be in constant communication with his fans via Twitter and [new video sharing service] Viddy."
It turns out, Bieber's not just an avid user of social media, he's also a savvy stakeholder. Only in 2012 would part of the marketing of an 18-year-old pop star involve publicizing his investments. Forbes trumpeted his success behind the scenes as a new breed of celebrity venture capitalist on the cover of its Celebrity 100 issue. Having raked in $108 million in the past two years, Bieber ranked third for the second year in a row, edged out only by Oprah Winfrey at No. 2 and Jennifer Lopez in the top slot. As for that venture capitalist tag added to his résumé, the quintuple threat (singer, songwriter, dancer, actor and budding business dynamo) is reinvesting a chunk of his earnings in the sectors that made him: in music and social media companies, such as Viddy, Tinychat, Stamped, Sojo Studios (the company behind the WeTopia game) and Spotify.
"Spotify was something that I got involved with really early," Bieber says. "My manager Scooter talked to me about it from the beginning and I thought it was a good tool because you get almost every song ever made on there and you can buy it whenever you want. I invested mainly because I liked the product." Recent reports that it's valued at $4 billion elicit an age-appropriate response from Bieber: "I think that's crazy - that's awesome, right?"
Those kinds of numbers can't really phase Bieber all that much, though. This is an artist who has more than 2.7 billion YouTube views - including the record-breaking most views in a single day of his "Boyfriend" video with 8 million first-day views (and 63 million views and counting since). In honor of that, a big initiative called Certified with Vevo is being planned for the week his album is released. The campaign will "be the first time an artist is honored for all of his video views," Grant says.
To keep fans engaged in the weeks prior to that point, IDJMG is enacting a "complete my album" campaign on iTunes, rolling out three new tracks in the weeks before release, the first of which, "Die in Your Arms," hit May 29. (When the song "All Around the World," featuring Ludacris, leaked days before it was meant to, loyal Bieber fans launched their own campaign on Twitter to rally others not to listen to it until its official release.)
There are several incentives put in place for fans to buy early. The first 10,000 people to preorder the direct-to-consumer album bundles can upload a photo online, which will be included in a poster they will receive that's a mosaic of Bieber with all of the fan photos. Preorder bundles will include a T-shirt - the design of which fans voted on as well. Consumers who preorder the album when purchasing concert tickets will also get a bonus track, "Hey Girl."
On top of all of that, each album comes with a "Golden Ticket" - an insert with a code on it that fans enter online (though purchase is not necessary) for a chance to win multiple prizes. In addition to autographed guitars and posters, the top two prizes are plum for the true Belieber: "One lucky fan will be able to fly to a Justin Bieber concert and be the 'one less lonely girl' he sings to onstage," Grant says. Another top winner will have the opportunity to be in a Bieber video. (Those less lucky can always get a whiff of Bieber when his new scent, Girlfriend, debuts around the album's release week.)
Of course, the main draw is the actual music. And the 13 tracks, and three extras on the deluxe album, are very accomplished, dotted with high-profile collaborations, with features from Big Sean, Drake, Ludacris and Nicki Minaj. The process allowed Bieber to stretch his wings, and have some fun while at it.
Watching him in action, Jerkins says, was a revelation. "Two hundred percent, he's a career artist. And it's not just because he can sing and has charisma. It's the fact that he's actually really creative - he can sit at the keyboard, pick up a guitar, get behind the drums, he can write lyrics and raps. He's very, very creative."
Bieber, Jerkins says, is constantly dreaming up ideas - often sending Jerkins voice notes over the phone to be worked on. When he's in recording mode, his routine is fairly low maintenance, Bieber says. "The studio's filled with people I like and trust. Sometimes the lights in the booth have to be dimmed and I have a few candles" - Le Labo's Santal 26, to be exact - "but other than that, that's it." (Does Bieber get a kickback for the shout-out? "He should," his rep chimes in. "Those candles are expensive.")
The first single, "Boyfriend," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, was cut during two evenings at Atlantic Studios in Los Angeles. Producer Posner echoes Jerkins in describing Bieber as somewhat of a pop savant.
"We'd put a beat on, and Justin hops in the booth and we just let him freestyle. If I left the room to go to the bathroom and came back, he'd be on my laptop, making a beat on all of my equipment." To that end, Posner says, it's "just a matter of time" until Bieber makes an album on his own. "He's learning more and more about writing, and he's already dope at making beats. Maybe not the next album, but there's going to be an album where Justin's keeping all of that publishing for himself."
As for the rap on "Boyfriend," it was a no-brainer for Posner. "Justin's a crazy rapper," he says. "He'll do four vocal takes at the beginning of the session of ideas, and the fourth one, always, is all rap," he recalls with a laugh. "He loves to rap, and he's really good at it. There was no hesitation. It was just kind of what the song called for. We weren't scared to take a risk."
It paid off. "'Boyfriend' widened his base as well as his format - it gets R&B/hip-hop play, rhythmic, pop, and it's widened his audience in age, too," IDJMG's Kwak says. "This is a record that plays in the clubs." Jerkins adds, "You want to keep your fan base, those 13- to 18-year-old girls, but you also want the college crew and the guys to appreciate what you're doing and know that you're cool as well." Or as Posner, 24, who rose to fame with his own urban/dance/pop hybrid, "Cooler Than Me," in 2010, assesses: "I can ride in the car with my homies who are my age and put on 'Boyfriend' and nobody thinks of Justin's early stuff."
While sonically he's in new territory, ultimately the sentiment of the song is classic Bieber, Braun says: "Lyrics like 'I will be a gentleman/Give you anything you need' - that truly goes to the romantic Justin Bieber of the past. I believe in natural progression."
He's clearly still got his core target audience in mind in one pop nugget after the next. Yes, there are certainly new textures (swirly electronic dance music flourishes, a touch of dubstep, some heavier hip-hop beats), but lyrically the appeal is fairly uniform and consistent: dewy-eyed love letters professing faith, chivalry, reassurance and undying devotion.
In one extra track on the deluxe edition, "Maria," Bieber makes a lyrically bold move, writing about Maria Yeater, the woman who accused him of fathering her child last year. "That's my 'Billie Jean,'" he says, again referencing his idol. Not only does the song thematically echo the Jackson classic, it has the sonic hallmarks to match, right down to the high-pitched Jackson "hoos" that punctuate the music. "It also has those 'Liberian Girl' type of harmonies and 'Dirty Diana' type of progressions," Jerkins says. "To me, it comes off as the 2012 version of 'Billie Jean.' I told Justin that in order to make this transition you're trying to make, you have to be truthful - just say what's in your heart."
The writing was particularly cathartic for Bieber, who was just 17 when the paternity suit came down. "It was something I wanted to get off my chest," Bieber says, "and I could just say it in a song and get my point across without having to worry about the words I'm using in an interview."
While he was a co-writer on every song on the album, at least one track, "Be Alright," he wrote (almost) entirely by himself - in a hotel room in Japan while on his last world tour. The sentiment in the song is one that resonates deeply for Bieber. "That song is really special to me," he says. "Listeners will be able to get where I'm coming from, because long-distance relationships are hard - being overseas, or in a different place in general, and having to maintain a relationship is tough. In the song, I'm letting the other person know that everything's going to be alright."
The title track, a soaring thank you to his faithful followers featuring a full choir - which Braun describes as "his 'I Believe I Can Fly' moment" and "the kind of record that makes people believe in him" - is another song close to Bieber's heart.
"That song is important because I'm able to talk about how much my fans mean to me and how much they've helped me on this journey," Bieber says of the track that sounds tailor-made for an installment of "Glee." In it, he sings of some despairing days on the road, when he nearly called it quits. "There were nights during the middle of my first world tour, when I was away from my friends and family, where I doubted myself and didn't want to do this anymore. Knowing I had my fans' support helped me push through."
Near the end of our time together, when his publicist gives the "five minutes left" signal, Bieber makes the same (bratty) joke as he did on our prior meeting: "Two minutes!" More than anyone, he's well aware that every minute of his time is valuable, coveted-and, most likely, already spoken for. Besides, he's got a world of Beliebers out there waiting for him.••••