It’s been six years since we watched a fresh-faced, 15-year-old Justin Bieber transform Usher’s home into a full-on tween rager in the video for his debut single, “One Time.” Four official studio albums, a couple of fresh tattoos, and one broken heart later, Justin Bieber is a grown ass man with a brand new sound. (OK, maybe not “grown ass man,” but he is legally an adult.)
Being a child star is no easy feat. We’ve seen tons of major young actors, singers, rappers, and artists burn out before they can even legally take a sip of alcohol, but Young Biebs has somehow managed to make it through the shitstorm that is child superstardom and come out a changed man.
That’s not to say that JB was no stranger to some serious obstacles on his quest to manhood, but the “What Do You Mean?” singer has clearly survived his transition from tween heartthrob to legit, adult hitmaker. And at the prime age of 21, one of pop music’s most controversial performers has started a new chapter in his music career.
When Bieber first hit the scene and released his My World EP, (followed by the full-length My World 2.0) in 2010, the world was smitten with his cute yet powerful voice that was almost reminiscent of Hanson in their early years. With an all-star team of producers and writers (Bryan-Michael Cox, Benny Blanco, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart), well-known features (Sean Kingston, Ludacris), and a superstar mentor/manager (Usher), the album was very well received by both fans and critics alike. His sound was perfectly molded to fit mainstream radio with its euro-pop synths paired with the occasional hint of hip-hop and even a dash of 1950s doo-wop (see: “Baby”). It also didn’t hurt that the kid had an unbelievable amount of swag for someone who hadn’t even hit puberty yet. It was at this point in time that Bieber Fever became a thing.
As further evidence to his growing popularity, in 2011 Bieber starred in Never Say Never, a 3-D concert film that documented the pop star during the 10-day countdown to his career-changing concert in Madison Square Garden on Aug. 31, 2010. The concert sold out in an impressive 22 minutes and is one of the largest concerts that he’s ever put on to date. Not only did it showcase the serious impact that Bieber was having on music fans around the world, but it also shed a light on his ability to transform into a rockstar on stage. The film grossed higher first-weekend totals than the 2009 concert film Michael Jackson's This Is It.
Bieber followed the film up with a move that was seemingly out of an *NSYNC playbook by dropping a Christmas album titled Under the Mistletoe that very same year. This was where we first saw him start to tread into R&B territory. He also really upped his squad game with features like Boyz II Men on “Fa La La,” Busta Rhymes on “Drummer Boy,” and Mariah Carey on “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” While Under the Mistletoe was a solid piece of work musically, the holiday aspect of it didn’t give it much replay value; it acted more as the perfect segue into Bieber’s first major attempt to break out of teen dreamville and into the adult world with the album Believe.
At the prime age of 18, Bieber’s voice was deeper, his lyrics were more daring, and his sound was much more versatile on Believe. With Usher as an executive producer and features like Drake on this album, this is where we get a look at the more sophisticated (and slightly sexual) side of the young star. This is basically the first album of JB’s that 18+-year-olds could listen to without feeling like they were jamming to a Disney kids compilation album. Seriously, you can’t act like you didn’t vibe out to "As Long As You Love Me" and "Right Here" back in 2012.
However, the biggest turning point in his transition easily took place the following year with the quiet release of Journals, where Bieber’s sound transformed from teenage pop prince to soulful bad boy. It’s worth noting that this album is probably JB’s most slept on piece of work, possibly because the media’s focus at the time was on his bad behavior in public rather than his music.
Aside from working with an array of talented producers including Poo Bear, Darkchild, and the Audibles, a major advantage for Bieber with his album Journals was that he had heavy-hitters like Chance the Rapper, Future, Big Sean, R. Kelly, and Lil Wayne to help guide his sound out of the pop world and into the land of soul/R&B. Additionally, the tempo in the music on Journals is noticeably slower, almost deliberately subdued with gentle, soulful rhythms that demonstrate zero relation to the pumped-up dance beats that we were used to from baby Biebs. 2014 was a big year for R&B with new albums from Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Tinashe, August Alsina, and more, and Bieber capitalized on that by mixing the genre into his already established pop sound in Journals.
Spin put it a little less delicately when they reviewed the album, saying, “On Journals, you get to hear a teen-pop jerk suffer through the growing pains that’ll hopefully turn him into a smoothie sweetheart.”
This change was a strategic and important move on Bieber’s behalf. It was the unspoken turn toward the current stylistic direction that Justin Bieber is heading in. This new musical pattern continues with his latest—and possibly best—releases: “Love Yourself,” “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry,” “I’ll Show You,” and the song that started it all this year, Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now?” with Skrillex and Diplo. This track was arguably the biggest song of the summer.
As the New York Times put it, “The song arrives in a swirl of electronic sound and vanishes in a distant echo, like a phantasm. But behind it, as with most Top 10 hits, is a matrix of inspirations and decisions, coincidences and hard work, marketing and luck.”
These electronic-driven songs are giving Bieber the space to prove himself as an artist by showing that he is more than capable of keeping his sound relevant by nodding to popular styles while remaining true to himself. We saw a similar shift happen with Justin Timberlake as he treaded out of boyband territory and into his own blend of pop, soul, and R&B—a comparison that Bieber is all too familiar (but seemingly happy) with.
Bieber’s next album, Purpose, is set to release on Friday, Nov. 13. In addition to Skrillex and Diplo, speculated producers include Rick Rubin and Kanye West, plus big-name features like Halsey, Ariana Grande, Big Sean, and more. It seems like the world is waiting with baited breath—which may sound like a dramatic statement, but don’t act like you’re not going to give it a listen with that critical ear of yours. We all want to know if his latest singles are a sample of what’s to come or if we’re about to hear something we haven’t heard from the new (and improved?) grown ass adult star.