Justin Bieber Purpose

[Def Jam; 2015]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: PRODUCT, prayer, pain(lessness)
Others: Chris Brown, Skrillex, Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Timberlake

Empty, Circle, Tremble

Pain makes a sound that faith can dampen, but not silence. Forgiveness is not a vacuum, however clearing its promise can feel, however unbelievably infinite its capacity for hurt. It can give purpose without one direction, give life worth without answer. The voice carries pain that only producers can erase, purify, transmute into singing, a vessel for empty words and a melody that will be all that is needed. When the pain is gone, the only thing to hear is an empty bliss from beyond this world.

“Better make up your mind” / “You don’t gotta make your mind up”

Justin Bieber is born again (non-denominationally Christian), hot again (matured), and unredeemable (redeemed) as an adult replicant pop star, suspended in an unconvincingly apologetic cloud of nothing. He can’t deny that he’s not perfect; he insists that he’s real, that he’s human. But he’s not — not on Purpose, an album so refined and calculated that its artifice somehow exceeds the hyperreality of SOPHIE, underperforms the James Ferraro uncanny valley. It can’t resonate with the universalizing crush and spiritedness of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion or the carefully cultivated identity of Tay Sway’s 1989. Justin’s soul, as it were (as it was? as it may never be?), has been stripped away, on this, the product of his comeback narrative.

As explained in a Complex interview, Justin’s Christianity sounds almost nihilistic: “What Jesus did when he came to the cross was basically say, ‘You don’t have to feel any of that stuff.’ We could take out all of our insecurities, we could take away all of the hurt, all the pain, all the fear, all the trauma. That doesn’t need to be there. So all this healing that you’re trying to do, it’s unnecessary.” He doesn’t have to feel it. He can be okay, just try to be his best. I don’t believe that’s how Justin feels day to day or that this sort of relief can blanket such heartache without causing more later (in the same interview, he says he feels invincible in a new way). At least as performed on Purpose, his inferiority amounts to a lack, a dehumanized voice fit for Ford & Lopatin’s “Break Inside.”

Justin wept. But you wouldn’t know it if he didn’t tell us on the title track and show us on stage. His pain, which I can only imagine is terrible — after a series of mishaps in the public eye, a heartrending end to too-young first love, a misplaced childhood — is inaudible. You can’t hear The Feeling in his voice, which is still one of the most infectiously beautiful in the industry, because as his faith has saved him from his pain, his production team has saved his voice from Justin. It makes for a series of unbeatable mainstream and crossover singles, and a desensitized, unnerving album.

What’s left is a mess of confusion, questions that beget nothing. What about the children? What do you mean? Where are you now? To mark his words is to mark a sadly empty fit of hope(lessness). Whose heart is the biggest? He ends the album proper with heart-on-sleeve piano balladry, a title track overbrimming with (vague, self-negating, Christian) sentiment that concludes in an incoherently stitched-together spoken outro of belief, which comes from seemingly nowhere, in service of himself/The Future (“Children”).

Purpose is an album obsessed with apology, a cheap redemption narrative that hasn’t even been asked of the most unforgivable pop stars. It’s an arc undermined by the music. As he says on “Sorry,” “I’m not too good with apologies.” What’s left of Bieber’s personality takes a familiarly sadboy shape, echoing his Canadian pop contemporary Drake by invoking a disapproving mom to lash out at an ex. He’s all but crucified on the album artwork and martyrs himself whenever he isn’t being mean-spirited (“Love Yourself,” a track that kills the momentum of the previous two bangers), which is maybe the only time he sounds like he means it. He leans on apologies and salvation to pave the way for hollowed-out dance tracks, where his personality has been traded in for feather-light beats. Those tracks are maybe the best songs of his career.

In the best year (without a Rihanna album) for Top 40 pop in recent memory, Bieber’s singles are among its most listenable and memorable. How many times have you read “tropical house” in Purpose reviews? Justin’s team has found the perfect score to elevate these anthems of meaninglessness, in the style of springbreaking Skrillex (the other instrumental follow his ecstatic, airy lead). There’s the synth-pad pan flute and bubbling bass of “What Do You Mean,” vinyl crackling and insistent brass impacts of “Sorry,” whistling scream and ATL hi-hats of “Where Are Ü Now.” Justin’s takyon falsetto, from beyond this world, phasing through the beat, is a siren call to forget everything but the music.

But this is an album all about the singles, where only a couple other tracks get their Cenobite hooks in you (“The Feeling,” “No Pressure”); the rest are weightless as vapor. His toxic masculinity has been mostly displaced by belief in God, suggestive for Christian listeners, but edited into blankness for his mass audience: “Give it all you’ve got, but if it ends up happening, it ends up happening. That’s what’s happening with me. It’s like, ‘God, I’m giving it all I’ve got. Sometimes I’m weak and I’m going to do it.’ And it’s like, I’m not giving myself grace, I’m just like understanding that’s just how it is.”

The “Sorry” video’s 13 dancers are outfitted in a millennial rainbow glow against the commercial white void of Justin’s absence. These anonymous Beliebers perform with more enthusiasm, more liveliness than any moment audible on Purpose. They’re choreographed, telegraphed, but somehow more naturalistic than the deadened performativity that has claimed Justin from even convincing sentimental pop excess. Where Justin should be present in the video, there is instead an enigmatic 14th dancer. She is the only one clad in black, missing from the group choreography, wearing a jacket unzipped just enough to reveal one word: “Nothing.”

Justin, where are you now?

Links: Justin Bieber - Def Jam

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