Justin Bieber has had quite an eventful year or two. His voice changed. He got a girlfriend. He got (very wrongfully) accused of knocking someone up. And, oh yeah, he turned 18. You know what that means, right? No, not that, all you dirty-minded would-be cougars out there -- though, yes, it does mean we are all very, very old. But it also means that the Biebster has some all-grown-up stuff to prove. And the driving point of Believe, his second full-length album, is to get you believing in the idea of JB as a legit, adult pop star.
First up on the plan to convert you to Adult Bieber Fever? Conquer as much of the known pop world as you can. On this album, Bieber zips around today's musical landscape like it was a Monopoly board, building hotels and staking claims on everything from dubstep-doused dance-pop to beach-y acoustic jams ("Be Alright"), from retro-soulful '70s singer-songwriter stuff (the warmly lit, terribly titled "Catching Feelings") to adult contemporary anthems (the title track, complete with gospel choir). Bolstering his claims are a cadre of VIP, VGU (that's very grown up) guests. But not only does Bieber get the likes of Ludacris, Big Sean, Drake and Nicki Minaj, he gets them to do his thing. His guests drop their panty-dropping ways (or, in Drake's case, his morose meta-swagger) and wax sweet enough to sell cereal.
Even more important than recruiting cred-establishing guests, however, is the establishment of musical touchstones. Bieber's conquering is also part homage, some of it very explicitly so. The scent of mentor Usher's thoughtful seduction and fashion-forward falsetto is all over Believe, of course, but so is Jason Mraz's sensitive perpetual summeriness and Adam Levine's blue-eyed funk. And then you get to "Maria," the last track on the bonus version. At first, this blow-by-blow discrediting of his alleged baby-mama sounds like a serious case of the Bieber doth protest too much (not to mention just a really poor PR move). But then the echoes of "Billie Jean" become louder and louder until it becomes apparent that "Maria" is every inch a straight-up tribute. Is it as compelling or as well crafted or as destined for posterity as Michael Jackson's own baby-drama dirge? No. But a track that obviously in homage tucked away there at the end of the bonus tracks seems to be more about establishing Bieber's musical lineage than an attempt at competing with his forefathers.
The most prominent touchstone here, of course, is Justin Timberlake, whose pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy hip-hop soul stank is all over Believe. With its massive, stuttering beats and dramatic falsetto, "As Long as You Love Me" (one of the album's best tracks) was built for the kind of angular, trick-knee post-MJ dance moves at which JT excels. Bonus track "Out of Town Girl" is so driven by twangy, conversational syncopated shuffle, it could have been produced by Timbaland in his heyday (it wasn't). Hell, Bieber even throws out a "señorita" or two on "Take You."
Naturally -- and wisely, Bieber is most definitely attempting to establish himself as the heir to JT's long-abdicated throne. And hey, he had our vote at Believe's first single, "Boyfriend." But beyond requesting induction to the pop god inner circle or an attempt at imitation, the JT-ness of it all seems to serve as a performative shorthand for the middle ground JB wants to inhabit here. On one hand, this kid (the fandom of whom is still a guilty pleasure for most adults) very much wants us to think of him as a serious, sexual, grown-up pop star. On the other, he is wisely attempting to get us to do so without entirely abandoning the sweet, mom-approved wholesomeness of his kiddie pop past. Timberlake, a very legit pop star who managed to elegantly evolve out of his boy band (/guilty pleasure) past, serves as a kind of discursive gesture, a signifier of the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman-esque balance Bieber is after.
As an act of conversion, Believe is pretty convincing. Sure, Bieber still trades a bit too heavily in tooth-aching schlockiness that feels like it's been whispered in his ear by his own mother (or like he's trying to impress someone else's). And yes, the versatility the album showcases also gives it a slightly scattershot feel at times. But we all already liked "Boyfriend" enough to make it a very, very big hit, even if we're still looking out of the corners of our eyes at our friends to see if they're laughing while we sing along. They shouldn't be. It's a very good song, and there are at least a handful more tracks here that are just as solid.
But even more fascinating, however, is this balancing act that Believe does manage to pull off, one much more extreme than the one Timberlake executed. Like much of the album, for instance, "Boyfriend" literally alternates between dark, breathless sensuality and cherub-cheeked wooing innocent enough to be the plot of a Disney show. And not only does the song pull off that strange juxtaposition, its success hinges on it. Elsewhere, groin-rattling club beats might segue into soft-hewn flamenco guitars, or a serving of one-milkshake-two-straws bubblegum R&B could be the setting for an ode to desperate, codependent obsession (the deliciously teenaged "Die in Your Arms"). Among all his touchstones, lineages, VIPs and other strategies for achieving adult legitimacy, what our little Biebster might just do best is to revel in this transitional age and stage in his career, in the unique yet familiar perspective on both youth and adulthood only young adults can have. Like his famously ambiguous voice or the way he takes up historically feminized themes of romance and sentimentality and uses them as tools of pretty aggressive seduction, he doesn't overcome the awkwardness of that in-betweenness. Rather, he makes it work for him.