It’s just past noon on a cloudy Thursday at the swanky Montage Beverly Hills hotel when a brawny man wearing a tight black T-shirt, black jeans, and shiny boots storms into a private poolside cabana and thrusts his card into my hand. “I’m Justin’s security, who are you?” he barks. After I explain to “Sarge” that I’m here from COMPLEX to interview Justin (last name: Bieber), he mellows. Justin, it turns out, is running late—he’s still recovering from the removal of all four wisdom teeth, one of which he’d later tell me was infected.
Three years ago, Justin Bieber appeared on the cover of COMPLEX as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. At the time, he was a relatively unblemished teen pop idol—so of course we photographed him in a boxing ring, bloodied and bruised (the blood was fake; the steak he held against his face was not). In the ensuing years, Bieber took his share of lumps: a bad breakup, multiple run-ins with the law, a night in jail for DUI and drag racing, and some head-scratching antics caught on camera, including an infamously belligerent deposition and peeing into a mop bucket. Depending on who you ask, Bieber had either gone full “bad boy” or was simply dealing with the growing pains associated with being a handsome, fabulously wealthy post-adolescent.
Yet Bieber’s legion of fans (72 million Facebook friends and counting) stuck with him. And now he's gaining a new audience: This year he has a pair of top 10 hits (the Diplo-Skrillex collab “Where Are Ü Now” and "What Do You Mean," his first-ever Billboard No. 1); he’s also been working with Kanye West and Rick Rubin on his first proper album in three years. Besides being in recording mode, he has made sporadic image-softening plays that included a Comedy Central roast, a couple of self-aware Ellen appearances, and a feel-good Carpool Karaoke video with James Corden, and a VMA performance that ended in tears. But after a couple false starts, has Justin really turned the corner?
When Bieber finally shows up to the interview, draped in throwback Chicago Bulls shorts and speckled Yeezy Boost 350s, the difference between now and three years ago is immediately evident. He’s not the same kid who was playing Temple Run and doodling backstage when we first met in 2012. Bieber now makes a point of looking you in the eye when he’s speaking, and one thing is clear: He’s in the mood to talk. While he picks apart his salmon across the table, he doesn’t mince words as he talks about moving past a rough patch and his new support system of one.
A lot of people who work with you, including Skrillex, say that you’re hypercompetitive. Have you always been like that? Has it gotten even crazier as you’ve gotten older?
In different ways. I care about different things now. I think I was competitive in a different way, where I just kind of focused on probably some wrong things, and now I’m just focused on winning and doing the best I can.
Skrillex also says you’re good at everything. I heard you showed up to a charity ping-pong event and waxed Action Bronson.
Growing up, I literally got my identity through being good at stuff. I always wanted to be the best because I felt like that’s how I got my self-worth. It actually did me good in the long run because now I can go skateboard and have fun. I was the only person in my school who was skateboarding and on the basketball team.
I think that also got me in trouble when I was young, because people don’t like when people are good at stuff. They just hate on it, and that has a lot to do with my hate in general. You see a dude who’s successful and he’s doing what he loves and people don’t take too well to that sometimes. I’d probably be the same way if I was in Canada, seeing this kid driving around in all these fancy cars and shit.
With that competitiveness, is it tough for you to stay quiet when you’re recording?
For sure. I’ll hear songs on the radio, and I’m not really a fan of what’s going on right now in music. I’ll hear it and go, “Ugh, why is this being played so much right now?” I have such great music that I want to share with the world.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists; now you’re working with Kanye. How is he different?
It’s his creative input. I’ll play a song, and he’ll be like, “Man this reminds me of like...a blacklight sunset,” or something. He’ll try to paint these pictures for you. It’s not the average way. He doesn’t just come in and say, “This sounds good; this sounds bad.” He’ll be like, “This is this because the world needs this.” He comes from a whole different point of view.
You said you scrapped this album previously because it didn’t match up with your mindset. What was lacking?
I’ve done probably three or four albums that I haven’t released yet. I’ve gotten all of these different modes, and try to dive into different ideas, and I finally came up with something that was pretty genius. I have these collaborations with Skrillex and Diplo, like “Where Are U Now” that just took off. This is their first top 10 record. It just shows that we’re breaking barriers in the EDM world. I think people have been trying to do it for a while, making dance music, like Usher and all of those people, but I don’t think it’s been done in the right way.
What does the 21-year-old Justin Bieber do for fun compared to the 18-year-old Justin Bieber I interviewed three years ago?
Well, I uh...I golf a lot. I wanted to golf today. It’s pretty good—I’m not great or anything. I enjoy it. Also, I can drink now. So I have a few drinks every now and then.
Do you think being around people like Floyd Mayweather makes you an easy target?
With Floyd, he’s just an image. I think he may not do the best job at being humble, but that’s not his job. I mean, it’s good to see people that are just humble and cool and down-to-earth and chill, but he’s trying to get pay-per-view numbers. He’s saying wild stuff just for attention. When people can just stop being stupid—sorry to say that—but when people can stop reading into it so much and just look at the fact that he’s doing this for entertainment....
He’s in a one-man sport. I’m in a one-man thing, too, but I have so many people that help me do this. Also, you go through a point where—I don’t know if he’s gotten this or not—but for me I went through a point of doing it for myself and doing everything in the industry for myself and I was unhappy because being able to do stuff for others is the biggest gift of all. I was robbing myself by not enjoying the moments where I should’ve been enjoying them and doing stuff for other people.
I forgot what I was about, what my mom raised me to be. I veered off, and I got tainted. I came into the music industry at 13. I was trying to trust people and they’d break my heart at 15. You have your perceptions of people. There are awesome people who are the lovely, amazing, joyful kind. But I only saw people who are shitty and were taking advantage of me. When you have that perspective, the way you act changes. I was basically like, Fuck everybody. Then I started doing my own thing. I got into a little bit of trouble—nothing that other 20-year-olds don’t get into—just rebelling a little bit. Now, being 21, I’m coming into my own and around some pretty cool people who are not afraid to tell me what’s real.
Last year you said you got cockier. Were there times when you felt invincible?
I was doing anything. I was doing so many things that I shouldn’t even be on the planet still. I think that it was by the grace of God. The whole time, [Bieber’s manager] Scooter [Braun] always made sure I was safe and made sure situations didn’t escalate. He’d fix every situation. It almost wasn’t good, because I’d be like, any time I wanna do something, Scooter is gonna take care of it. It backfired a few times. It’s been a cool journey, an awesome learning experience. I wouldn’t take back anything. I wouldn’t do anything over again. I would do it all the same way. I’m not going to say I’m sorry for the things that I’ve done because I think that it allows me to tell a story. If I would’ve came into the industry at a young age and never had any failures, people would’ve been like, Who is this kid? He’s not relatable. Now, I went through my shit, I came out on the other side, and I’m going to show you it gets better.
When you were released from jail, you sat on top of an SUV. That seemed like a statement.
I think that was a statement, too. The police, they just wanted press; they wanted attention. I never was speeding; I never was drag racing. Everything that comes out of Miami was “Justin with his dad drag racing.” First of all, my dad wasn’t even with me. He pulled up after because he heard I got pulled over, so he came to see if I was OK. The cop supposedly wanted to be famous for arresting celebrities, and someone had heard him say that prior to that. I wasn’t drinking. I blew the thing and I had 0.01. I might have had a beer earlier in the day or something. I was like, “Officer, what’s going on? What did I do?” And he was like, “Put your hands on the hood!” I was like, what? I lifted my hands and I was like, “What do you mean, what’s going on?” He was like, “I told you, put your hands on the hood! Now you’re under arrest for resisting arrest!” I felt it, dude. I was just like, Oh they’re trying to get me right now at any cost. I went in, and I’m telling you that 24 hours sucked. It was really cold. That was the worst part about it.
A lot of people who have spent a night in jail say it was the worst night of their lives.
It’s freezing; it’s uncomfortable; there are people in there you just don’t want to be around. I had people who were yelling at me. They were saying, “Bieber! We fuck with you, bro! We love you! Aye! Keep your head up, bro!” It was kind of funny to hear that, especially from cats in jail.
At this stage in your career, is it tough to be both politically correct and unapologetic about how you really feel? In the deposition, I could see why people would say you were being a brat. But there are a lot of people who thought it was funny. Do you struggle with the balance?
I’ve learned to counter balance. I don’t have to be a super proper, stiff guy. I can still have fun with stuff. Sometimes it might look like I’m being a little arrogant; sometimes I’m playing around and having fun. I think the deposition was a little too much. I’m trying to encourage people, and I don’t think that that’s the right attitude to have. I was also frustrated. I was in a weird place. It was annoying. I just felt like I didn’t owe the guy anything. I was just going to mess with every question he had. I got him, too. He was so frustrated. An hour of him just being like, I don’t know what to do or say.
Of all the criticism you got, do you think any of it was petty, or unfair?
Honestly, I think the pissing in the bucket wasn’t as big as people made it seem. Just because, dude, think about it. Imagine, you hear that fucking Ozzy Osbourne pisses backstage. Immediately, “Oh, he’s a freaking rock star!” As soon as I do it, “He’s being a brat.” Dude, what is bratty about pissing in a bucket? I had to go piss—we all have to pee. The bathroom was like on the other side, and the dude in the club was like, “Just pee here.” He told me I could and it wasn’t like I was being disrespectful. I feel like that was pretty ostracizing—bigger than it should’ve been.
Do you think some people around you wanted you to rebel?
Yeah, I think so.
Did you have to cut a lot of people off recently?
Yeah, and it’s not even their fault. It wasn’t like I was cutting them off like, this person’s toxic. I could be around that person and not do that stuff because the stuff I do is not who I am. What I really want people to see in this next chapter is not Justin Bieber the artist. I want people to start seeing me and feel like they can connect with me. I’ve made myself so unrelatable the past year with all the stuff that I was doing. Not even bad stuff sometimes, just outrageous stuff. Like, you got a monkey, what are you doing?
I could say it over and over again, I’m changing and doing this with my life, but unless they start seeing something tangible like, “Oh he’s helping this person; he would’ve never said something like this a year ago; he would’ve never taken responsibility for something like that a year ago, but now he’s actually being a man about it and understanding commitment, understanding the value of time, understanding the value of people....” When you get famous, you get people that will encourage whatever you do. You’ll do something and they’ll be like, “That was dope, Justin!” When you’re young especially, you don’t know who’s bullshitting you. I’m gonna make sure that I don’t have people around me who make me look like an idiot. You don’t understand—that’s a normal thing for human beings, but I never had that in my life. I didn’t even have that with my parents. I think they just didn’t know how. We never built the right relationships. Now I’m having real relationships where it’s two ways. I didn’t understand how that works because the way people would interact with me was always so weird and it was never completely 100 percent genuine.
You also fell in love at an early age.
What did you learn from it?
Don’t fall in love. No, I’m just kidding. I learned a lot. I moved in with my girlfriend when I was 18. Started my own life with her. It was a marriage kind of thing. Living with a girl, it was just too much at that age. But we were so in love. Nothing else mattered. We were all about each other. But when it’s like that and you get your value from that, people will always disappoint you. Your girl or your dude, they’re always going to disappoint you. Your full identity can’t be in that person. My identity was in her. Her identity was in me. When stuff would happen, I would lose my freakin’ mind, and she would lose her mind, and we would fight so hard because we were so invested in each other. Love is a choice. Love is not a feeling. People have made it seem in movies that it’s this fairy tale. That’s not what love is. You’re not gonna want to love your girl sometimes but you’re gonna choose to love her. That’s something in life that I had to figure out. I can’t lean on people. I got to lean on God. I gotta trust in him through all my situations. Then, hopefully, my other relationships will flourish around me. But if I’m gonna be so invested in you, if you die, or something happens to you, I’m gonna be so destroyed, I won’t be able to go on. If I can love you and know that I’m not who I am because you’re being nice to me, but that I love you and I think you’re an incredible person but you’re just as broken as I am on the inside. We’re all just trying to figure it out.
Do you think you’ll always compare relationships to the one you had with Selena?
Yeah. You get scarred from certain things. Even like—I’m kind of seeing this girl, right? I’m shy about doing or saying certain things, and then I say it and it’s not even a problem. And I’ll remember when I couldn’t.... You’re just scarred and you don’t do something because in your last relationship they’d freak out, but [the new person is] just like, “What are you talking about?”
One of my favorite things I’ve seen you do was the carpool video with James Corden. You were relaxed and open. Is that the “real” Justin Bieber?
Yeah, I think so. That’s what I wanna get out to the world more. I’m tired of putting on a mask and a show for these people. I’m just gonna be myself and if they don’t like it, they don’t like it. I move on. I can just trust that God got this under control. That’s where I’m at. I’m the type of dude who always wants to figure it out. Science makes a lot of sense. Then I start thinking—wait, the “big bang.” For a “big bang” to create all this is more wild to think about than thinking about there being a God. Imagine putting a bunch of gold into a box, shaking up the box, and out comes a Rolex. It’s so preposterous once people start saying it. At this point, my faith has gotten me to where I am. My faith has brought me to a whole other level. I love talking about my faith. I think that with Christians, they’ve left such a bad taste in people’s mouths. Just like, overly pushy with the subject, overly churchy and religious.
I have family members who talk about religion a lot.
Some people are bad communicators. They find something that works so well for them and they wanna share it, but they don’t know how to share it so they’re kind of pushy. There’s a lot of really weird stuff going on at churches. You ever flicked on a channel and a late-night church show is on? Sometimes it’s like, “You better do this or you gon’ die and you gon’ burn in hell!” And you’re like, I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m the same way. I’m not religious. I, personally, love Jesus and that was my salvation. I want to share what I’m going through and what I’m feeling and I think it shouldn’t be ostracized. I think that everybody should get their chance to share what they’re doing or where their journey is headed, whether they’re straight or gay or what they believe in. We’re in a place now in 2015 where people have gotta be open-minded. I actually feel better and more free now that I know what I can do and what I can’t do. My voice, I’m not gonna let it not be heard anymore. I’m gonna use my voice for a reason. I think that people, as soon as they start hearing me saying I’m a Christian, they’re like, “Whoa Justin, back up, take a step back.” Also, I do not want to shove this down anyone’s throat. I just wanna honestly live like Jesus. Not be Jesus—I could never—I don’t want that to come across weird. He created a pretty awesome template of how to love people and how to be gracious and kind. If you believe it, he died for our sins. Sometimes when I don’t feel like doing something, but I know it’s right, I remember, I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross and dying so that we don’t have to feel what we should have to feel. 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. We have the greatest healer of all and his name is Jesus Christ. And he really heals. This is it. It’s time that we all share our voice. Whatever you believe. Share it. I’m at a point where I’m not going to hold this in.
You’re not holding back.
It’s like a girlfriend. If I have an awesome, bomb girlfriend, I’m gonna wanna show her off and go around and tell people my girl is the shit. I’m not gonna cheat on her because she’s the best. It’s like with God: The whole thing with religion is you present yourself holy and bring your offerings so that God can bless you, when the whole point of the relationship [should be], “No, I’m gonna do this because he loves me. I’m gonna do this because he’s amazing and not because [I] have to, [but] because [I] want to.” That’s the whole thing with religion that’s been throwing off the people. It’s not a “have to.” It should be just like a personal relationship. Like, “Hey, I love you because you first loved me.”
If we can understand that we’re all imperfect, let’s come to God and come for his help. You’re not weak by doing that. I think that’s a common misperception of Christians, that you’re being weak because you can’t handle it. None of us can handle this world, dude! It’s eating us alive. But, man, I don’t wanna have to do it on my own. I know for sure my parents can’t give me all that I need. I know that my friends can’t give me all that I need. There’s something missing. That’s why I think Christians do that. I don’t wanna talk bad about anything. Like I said before, Christians leave such a bad taste in people’s mouths, even myself. I was like, I’m not gonna go to church. I had these church friends and I was like, you guys are cool, I like you guys, but I’m not going to church. Then it was the same thing of, just because you went to a weird church before doesn’t mean that this is weird. It doesn’t make you a Christian just by going to church. I think that going to church is fellowship, it’s relationship, it’s what we’re here on the earth to do, to have this connection that you feel there’s no insecurities. I think that’s where we need to be. Like I said, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.
You said you felt invincible when you were going through your rebellious period. Does your renewed faith make you feel invincible as well?
Yeah. I do. In a different way. I feel invincible like, nothing is bigger than God. If God’s for me, who can be against me? That’s helped me in a lot of situations where I feel judged. It gives you confidence and you can carry yourself in a cool way, but it’s not cocky. It’s a confidence that’s a godly confidence. That’s what I always want. I wanna be loved for being a good dude and for being confident in myself because I know who I am and what I carry and what I sacrifice.