From a PR perspective, Purpose is the album Justin Bieber had to make. The 21-year-old Canadian pop star spent the last couple years running amok from Munich (where his pet monkey was confiscated in 2013) to Miami Beach (scene of a 2014 DUI arrest) to Rio de Janeiro (that notorious brothel visit). And although he survived with his health and credibility intact, he’s in no position to gloat. For his fourth album to work, the Biebs needs to seem humble, repentant, and grown up.
All of which he does — sometimes too well. “Don’t forget that I’m human,” Bieber begs on the chilled-out EDM ballad “I’ll Show You,” one of several tunes co-produced by Skrillex. (See also: the redemptive emo-dancehall jam “Sorry” and “Where Are U Now,” the smash Jack Ü collabo that jumpstarted this comeback.) “I’ve made a few mistakes,” Bieber reiterates on the po-faced R&B tune “No Pressure,” featuring Big Sean. “I’m the only one to blame.” On this mission to make amends, Bieber leaves nothing to chance. Even when he ups the tempo on the clubbier “Company,” he’s looking to “have a conversation,” not sip Cris.
And yet Purpose isn’t a downer. It’s a party record — it just so happens the party’s in Bieber’s head. Despite its countless co-writers and producers, chief among them Bieber’s bestie Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, the album boasts a consistent palette of lush, low-key electro-dance sounds: sun-warped synths, chipmunk accent vocals, rattling trap hi-hats, and loads of bass. Melt in Bieber’s downy, still-boyish vocals, and you get the beachy bumper “What Do You Mean?” (his first-ever No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100) or the searching, spacious “The Feelings,” featuring alt-pop riser Halsey. Bieber isn’t trying to rock the club; this is psych-up music for the man in the mirror.
It’s in this Spotify-age blend of dance, hip-hop, R&B and classic smooth-dude vocalizing that Bieber truly shows his growth. Give him a boring old piano or electric guitar, and he’ll overplay his renewed spirituality, like on the mawkish title track, or make like John Mayer doing Sam Smith, as on the Ed Sheeran team-up “Love Yourself.” New man, fresh perspective, music that pops: That’s where Purpose turns skeptics into born-again Beliebers.