That won’t surprise anyone who wrote the kid off as a haircut. But if you were listening close in 2009 — when Bieber was sparking his first shopping mall riots — you could hear a precocious, mischievous R&B singer developing beneath that golden shag. He sang his 15-year-old lungs out with a smidge of attitude — just enough to catapult him above the Disney-minted acts that dominated the kid-pop wasteland and into a constellation of pop superstars.
With “Believe,” his promise continues to slip away. Instead of battling for a meaningful spot in the great American pop narrative, Bieber retreats to his heartthrob DMZ, trying to make you love him by singing about how much he loves you, girl.
The only thing different is the hair — that graham-crackery puff has been sculpted into a sticky pompadour. Please don’t touch.
“Why should we fight the fever?” he asks on “Thought of You,” a melodic string of sweet nothings that feels far from feverish. When the backing beat explodes into a four-on-the-floor refrain, the digital processing on his falsetto renders his voice unrecognizable.
Was it ever recognizable? Sure. Like Justin Timberlake before him, Bieber has been moonwalking in the footsteps of Michael Jackson since Day 1, hoping to follow Jackson’s child-turned-icon career trajectory.
But Bieber’s pipes have always had their own distinct, pleading timbre — which we only get to hear for a fleeting moment on “Believe” during “Die in Your Arms.”
Yet, unlike Jackson and Timberlake, Bieber hasn’t figured out how to navigate the rhythms being thrown at him. Even at his most agile, during the stammering beats and blips of “Take You,” he sounds relatively flat-footed.
“I’m just trying to make a little conversation,” he flirts vapidly. “Why the hesitation? / Tell me what your name is.” When the thumpity-thumping chorus arrives, his voice doesn’t surge into the moment. It deflates.
He fares better on the splashy opening cut, “All Around the World,” by shifting into cruise control, letting the song’s bouncy Euro-house beat provide the charm. Riding shotgun, rapper Ludacris finds a way to lose a little more dignity with his cameo verse: “I love everything about you / You’re imperfectly perfect / Everyone’s itching for beauty / But you’re scratching the surface.”
Other rappers who materialize throughout the album’s 16 tracks — Drake, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean — sound like they’ve shown up to lend their cred, spit their verses, collect their checks and go hide somewhere.
But Bieber takes the album’s biggest risk when he tries rapping over the cavernous drums of “Boyfriend.”
“Chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue / I don’t know about me, but I know about you,” Bieber raps. Whatever that means, it feels bold. Then, it feels old. As an MC, Bieber’s whispery, conspiratorial delivery can be traced back to “Vans,” a 2006 song by California group the Pack. Bieber has said he’s a fan of the Pack’s most eccentric member, Lil B, but still has everything to learn about being a weirdo.
All of this inevitably leads to the will-anyone-care-in-20-years question.
While it’s difficult to imagine any of the songs on “Believe” defining an era, squinting into the future feels like energy wasted. Scores of young fans love Justin Bieber right this minute, even if they don’t know who he really is. So long as he remains a blank slate, his fate isn’t sealed.
And that’s the perverse triumph of “Believe.” A superstar’s future has never felt blanker.
“All Around the World,”
“Die In Your Arms”