Justin Bieber is a pop star for the modern age: an undoubtedly talented but once ripe sensation discovered on YouTube, signed by an established artist (Usher), and forged into a teen idol with overproduced bubble gum pop hits. He spent his younger years turning himself into a global pop megastar, but just as quickly as he rose, a string of mishaps and poor choices threatened to bring his success to a halt. In July 2013, he made headlines for peeing in a mop bucket at a restaurant and yelling about Bill Clinton. That November, he offended Argentinians by mishandling the country’s flag on stage. He was charged that same month with vandalism in Brazil and was caught sneaking out of a Brazilian brothel. In December, he allegedly assaulted a limo driver.
During that same time, Bieber sharply turned the corner musically with his brand-shedding compilation album, Journals, an under-promoted side venture that seemed to suggest he was ready to stray from the kiddie pop image that initially made him so popular. But he was still very much at odds with public perception in the months following its release. In January 2014, he was arrested for a DUI. Months later, two different racist videos surfaced online. Not long after that, Bieber received a misdemeanor charge for egging a neighbor’s house. In the wake of these public meltdowns, a very high-profile breakup with singer-actress Selena Gomez, and a stint of musical silence, Bieber was forced to reconcile with both his fan base and his critics in a run that culminates in Purpose, his third studio album and first since 2012’s Believe.
Bieber bought back public favor making songs that facilitate crying in the club: a wine-worthy tropical house mea culpa in “Sorry,” a bouncy, seemingly guileless emotional interrogation in “What Do You Mean?,” and a pitch-bending vocal collage of vulnerability in “Where Are U Now,” which essentially paved the way for this successful image rehabilitation. The trifecta is the foundation upon which Purpose is built; it’s a coming-of-age record lined with crystallizing emo dance pop gems. Following a roast that scanned as a somewhat transparent apology and an exceptional, tear-filled MTV performance, the album concludes Bieber’s apology tour. Purpose is, at its core, a formal request for a pardon through music. He lays his soul bare in joyless lyrics stripped naked, requiring very little interpretation, filling the crags with buoyant, sun-drenched productions from Skrillex, Blood, and Diplo.
Many of the album’s strongest moments find room in the spaces he’s already mined giving his house blends more depth. Songs like “Company” and “I’ll Show You” project emotional availability with different agendas. A strutting electropop tune, “Company” seeks surface-level companionship on the dance floor while “I’ll Show You” pens an open letter to fans: “My life is a movie and everyone’s watching/So let’s get to the good part and past all the nonsense.” It reads like Bieber fast-forwarding the last few years of his life to this exact moment. The song functions as a segue. It bridges the gap between falsetto-filled opener “Mark My Words,” a solemn plea, and “What Do You Mean?,” the album’s spiritual centerpiece. It also marks the start of Purpose’s best series.
Though an odd juxtaposition sequentially, an apology immediately followed by a slap, the Skrillex and Blood-produced “Sorry” and the Ed Sheeran co-written “Love Yourself” display the best of Bieber in tandem: the full scope of his pop stylings—blue-eyed soul fleshing out both electronic and acoustic spaces; the full range of his tone, which can morph from an icy falsetto into something with more husk in the lower registers; and the full measure of his personality, which pivots from sorry and sincere (“I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to/But you know there’s no innocent one in this game for two”) to snappy and spiteful (“My momma don’t like you and she likes everyone”) on a dime, almost always registering as conversational.
For the most part, Purpose carries that same conversational tone throughout, even in its misfires. The elastic guitar riff on “No Pressure” gives a text thread a melody and finds longtime collaborator Big Sean regressing back into old habits (“You know I eat the cookie like I’m Lucious”), and a Bieber duet with Halsey, “The Feeling,” is merely a retread of the sad indie pop popularized by artists like Ellie Goulding and Tove Lo. The album gets a little bogged down by the sappiness of a comeback sometimes, too. The back end is less body-roll-friendly and more idealistic with hackneyed message music on “Life Is Worth Living” and the strobing synthpop tune “Children.”
But those few missteps are overcome by the highlights, songs like the Travi$ Scott-featuring “No Sense,” in which Bieber glides over descending, bass-riddled synthesizers, and the bumping Nas-assisted bonus cut “We Are.” Given the piety on display in recent interviews, it isn’t a stretch to infer the title track is a pop hymn, and it feels like an apt bit of closure to Bieber’s long-running melodrama. The slow-rolling grand piano chords lay the sound bed for a psalm filled with religious subtext: “Here's my soul to keep/I let you in with all that I can/You're not hard to reach/And you bless me with the best gift/That I've ever known/You give me purpose.” Forgiveness is always a tough ask, but with Purpose as an offering, Justin Bieber makes himself likable again, presenting his music as his confessional and coming out on the other side with a second chance.