Justin Bieber's Reclamation Project Begins with 'Where Are U Now'

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber performs at KIIS FM's Wango Tango 2015 in Los Angeles, California on May 9, 2015 

Forget the butt photo. The Biebs is back in the Top 10, and the music comeback is underway.

Justin Bieber is officially back -- back in the Top 10, and back in the public consciousness as a popular musician.

Skrillex & Diplo's "Where Are U Now," featuring the Biebs on vocals, moves 17-8 on this week's Hot 100 chart, following the June 29 release of its official music video. The fan-assisted visual helped give the song's streaming numbers a big boost last week, but "Where Are U Now" is also increasing its hold on radio and nearing the Top 10 of the Digital Songs chart.

So what does this mean? It means that "Where Are U Now" is a legitimate hit, and that Bieber has his first Top 10 single since "Beauty and a Beat" featuring Nicki Minaj, which peaked on the chart way back in January 2013. "Where Are U Now" is a great song: smart, slick, emotional and with a knotty breakdown that balances out Bieber's vulnerable crooning. "Where Are U Now" is also the right song for Bieber to start remaking his career with -- because it is not a Justin Bieber song.

It certainly wasn't treated like a new Justin Bieber song when it came out. "Where Are U Now" was released as part of Skrillex and Diplo's Jack U album in late February, and it was not the project's lead single (that honor went to the Kiesza collaboration "Take U There"). Bieber's involvement with the track still pushed the song into the Top 10 of the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart within two weeks, and "Where Are U Now" was getting over a million streams a week soon after it debuted. While that's a lot of Beliebers listening to the song on Spotify, a lot more fanfare would have been paid to the song (or another song Bieber released) had it been the proper first single from his next album, instead of a feature on an electronic duo's new project.

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"Where Are U Now" debuted at No. 97 on the Hot 100 on the chart dated Mar. 21, 2015; compare that start with the debuts of Selena Gomez's proper new single "Good For You" (No. 9), Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" (No. 19) and Demi Lovato's "Cool For The Summer" (No. 36 Hot 100 debut). Now compare it to the release of Bieber's last lead single -- "Boyfriend," which debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 2012. The start to "Where Are U Now" was downright muted.

The song's entire life cycle has been one of slow, organic growth: "Where Are U Now" spent 17 weeks working its way toward the Top 10 and gathering listeners, squeezing onto more and more summertime playlists, before the video arrived last week and helped the song reach a new peak in its 18th frame. And while a pop star would normally rather have their latest single enjoy a splashy debut than be under-the-radar, for Bieber, the viscous chart movement of "Where Are U Now" was the best thing for him.

Had Bieber come back with a solo single from his next album in February, the song would have been subject to a million Internet hot takes and thinkpieces, and potentially snickered at by the pop fans who are sick of Bieber's personal shenanigans and rooting for him to underachieve. Instead, Bieber snuck in the back door and put himself in a can't-lose situation. If "Where Are U Now" hadn't become a hit, that's no sweat for Bieber -- it was a collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo, two respected artists who don't normally heat up Top 40 as lead artists, and shouldn't have been expected to cross over. Now that it is a hit, it's a surprise win, and a nice radio return for an artist who was getting arrested and apologizing for leaked racist videos last year. 

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And that's the unheralded story of this Top 10 return: it comes after a first half of 2015 that was a time of startling calm for Bieber. There have been some provocative moments -- look at that butt pic he posted to Instagram earlier this week! But as Miley Cyrus constantly reminds us, "provocative" is different than "unlikable," and for as much as the Biebs gets people talking, he has generally steered clear of trouble -- and apologizing, and even happily getting made fun of -- over the past six months. Would "Where Are U Now" have had less success had Bieber been causing various ruckuses over the spring and summer? It's difficult to say for sure, but obnoxious personal exploits certainly don't usually help songs become hits.

This is a good (re)start for Bieber. After everything he's gone through, Bieber scoring another Top 10 single was far from a foregone conclusion; now, step one in his musical comeback has been accomplished.