Bieber in Paradise: Is This Modern Pop's Most Amazing Comeback Story Ever?
“Thank God I’m not where I used to be!!”
So wrote Justin Bieber in an Instagram caption on April 23, underneath a photo comparing his relaxed smile now to the creepy grin he flashed in his 2014 mug shot, right after he was arrested on suspicion of DUI. Liked by 2.5 million Instagram users, the side-by-side shot is positioned as a stark comparison — but, if anything, the post actually undersells the transformation that it represents.
A lot can happen in three years. In May 2014, LeBron James was still a member of the Miami Heat, Iggy Azalea was cranking out hits and Donald Trump was a reality star who frequently trolled President Obama on Twitter. Also that month, the pop career of 20-year-old Justin Bieber had sunk into a black hole, following months of erratic behavior that culminated in his arrest that January. Since 2012, he had peed in a mop bucket on camera; he threatened retirement on Twitter; he released a series of moody (and actually pretty good) R&B songs, called them Journals and released them as an iTunes bundle that didn’t move the needle commercially; he had taken his shirt off in moments where he probably needed a shirt.
All of the goodwill of his ascent as a precocious teenage phenomenon (the “Baby” boom, if you will) had disintegrated following a string of PR nightmares. In June 2014, when years-old videos of a young Bieber using the N-word in a tasteless joke were unearthed by TMZ, the social media response wasn’t shock, but a defeated shrug. Bieber’s career had already fallen off a cliff. Did it matter exactly how high that cliff was from the ground?
At this point, Bieber’s comeback story does not need to be rehashed piece by piece; the CliffNotes version is, he went away for the back half of 2014, dropped a very successful album (Purpose) in 2015 and toured the world in 2016. Comeback stories happen all the time in pop music, and with his millions of Beliebers and no unforgivable crimes to his name, Bieber always had a shot at rising from his mop-bucket ashes and atoning for his underage sins. In the span of one month in 2015, Bieber got roasted (then delivered a heartfelt apology) on Comedy Central, and dropped “Where Are U Now” as part of Skrillex and Diplo’s Jack U project. His comeback has effectively been in place for two years.
Yet it’s a particularly good week to acknowledge a new detail of Bieber’s resurgence: It may be the most successful comeback story in modern pop history. It’s not just that Bieber had one commercially viable post-spiraling single or album. At this point, everything the dude touches turns to gold, and he’s surpassed even the wildest expectations for his career recovery.
On this week’s Hot 100 chart, DJ Khaled’s summertime banger “I’m the One” featuring Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne, debuts at No. 1, giving Bieber his fourth chart-topper overall and since his Purpose era began with “What Do You Mean?” in 2015. “I’m the One” is ostensibly a classic Khaled-brand hip-hop posse cut in the vein of “All I Do is Win” and “We Takin’ Over,” with one additional element — a pristine hook, delivered by an A-list pop star (sorry, Akon) and serving as the song’s ultra-catchy connective tissue.
Despite his ability to recruit A-list talent for his songs, from Jay Z to Nicki Minaj to Usher to Drake, Khaled never had a No. 1 single on the Hot 100 until “I’m the One,” his first collaboration with Bieber. And with the song, Bieber becomes the first male solo artist to debut in the top spot on multiple occasions (“What Do You Mean?” did so two years ago).Indeed, the first three non-"Where Are U Now" singles from Purpose — “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” — all hit No. 1, solidifying Bieber’s return from the Top 40 wilderness and helping his 2015 album become a commercial blockbuster.
Yet perhaps more impressively, Bieber’s voice has been inescapable even after his album cycle has ended, thanks to a series of smart featured turns that ran with, or expanded upon, the “Where Are U Now” blueprint. Last July, he hooked back up with Diplo on Major Lazer’s electro-pop anthem “Cold Water,” another which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100; a month later, DJ Snake dropped the Bieber-assisted trop-house jam “Let Me Love You,” which hit No. 4 on the chart but became an even bigger international hit than “Cold Water," topping the charts across Europe last year. These were summer hits that stretched well into the fall on Top 40 radio, and kept Bieber in the spotlight long after the Purpose singles had stopped being serviced.
And before “I’m the One” was released, Bieber checked another accomplishment off of his bucket list: he helped a viral hit become the first primarily Spanish-language song to enter the top 10 of the Hot 100 in two decades. Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” (featuring Daddy Yankee) was a crossover hit prior to Bieber hopping on a remix last month, but his appearance on the update -- the Biebs’ English-lanuage portion introduces the song and leads directly into the Fonsi/Yankee hook -- has helped the song explode at Top 40 over the past three weeks, and reach a No. 3 peak on the Hot 100. Countless North American pop stars have worked with Latin artists over the past 20 years; Bieber helped this collab achieve what no such single has done since “Macarena.”
Not convinced that a constant radio presence is enough proof that a comeback is special? Let’s also take a gander at Bieber’s live presence since his return. The Purpose World Tour began in March 2016 and will reach over 150 venues by the time it concludes this September. Last month, it was reported that the live run is close to $200 million in revenue, and it’s headed to stadiums in North America this summer, after it landed at No. 5 on Billboard's list of top-grossing tours of 2016.
Similarly worth noting over this time period: As Bieber’s star power returned, his critical acclaim reached previously unforeseen heights. After his 2012 album Believe was snubbed at the Grammy Awards, Bieber earned his first Grammy in 2016 for “Where Are U Now,” and was nominated for album of the year (for Purpose) and song of the year (for “Love Yourself”) at the 2017 ceremonies. Three years earlier, such major nominations would have been unthinkable for Bieber, who lost out to Esperanza Spalding for best new artist in 2011, well before his reputation had even begun to crater.
But the key component to Bieber’s comeback has always been the most obvious one: along with all the hits, shows and critical praise, he’s stopped courting controversy. Gone are the days of egg-throwing and paparazzi-baiting, headlines that hounded Bieber as he tried to keep the focus on his music. That’s primarily where it is now, aside from the occasional plea to have fans let him eat lunch in peace or Instagram disappearance. And when he is in the public eye, whether starring in a Super Bowl commercial or playing an impromptu piano set at a Toronto bar, Bieber is almost startlingly normal, a twenty-something celebrity who appears to be responsibly enjoying a spectacular run of success (when not looking like he needs a break from a very long touring cycle).
“The best is yet to come do you believe it?” Bieber rhetorically posed his fans in his then-and-now Instagram post last month. That may yet be true, based solely on the new No. 1 hit featuring Bieber that was released days after he wrote those words. Yet it’s worth reflecting on what’s already happened to Bieber since that all-encompassing low point three years ago: As he once again rules the Hot 100, Bieber can revel in the fact that no artist has enjoyed the scale of his basement-to-ceiling rise since 2014, or turned such a massive 180 from radioactivity to one of the biggest artists on the planet. Even if his best is not yet to come? That’s fine. Where he is now is already better than where he's been before -- and where we'd ever thought he'd be.