There simply isn’t enough good pop music on Purpose.
It’s a time-honored tradition—from MJ to JT, Demi Lovato to Nick Jonas, every teen pop star eventually needs to prove they are a mature artist capable of running with the big dogs. It’s a make-or-break career moment, and some handle it far better than others.
Very few have more riding on this moment, however, than Justin Bieber. For those of you keeping score at home, Purpose is now Bieber’s third attempt at demonstrating his adulthood, following 2012’s more sophisticated but still bubblegum-flavored Believe and the largely ignored 2014 collection Journals. But for Bieber it’s more than just proving he can make music fit for adults—he also has to prove he can act like one. In the wake of a heavily-publicized two-year period of public meltdowns and head-scratching embarrassments, Bieber’s Purpose is not only a declaration of independence, but a mea culpa as well. The record ultimately functions far better as the former than the latter, as the listener will undoubtedly wish that Bieber had spent more time cranking out respectable jams and less time apologizing for behaving like an idiot. It’s a maxim for a reason—show us, Biebs, don’t tell.
Whether or not he realized it, Bieber’s achievement of musical credibility didn’t really depend on Purpose at all. Aligning himself with Skrillex—the Timbaland to his JT—he has produced a triumvirate of the most critically respected and commercially beloved pop songs of the year. Unsurprisingly, they’re the best parts of the album. “What Do You Mean?” and “Where Are Ü Now” wisely hitch their wagons to the “tropical house” star, offering ideal of-the-moment chart toppers. Even better is “Sorry,” a perfect marriage of Bieber’s lothario soul and Skrillex’s sledgehammer subtlety. It is now perfectly respectable to admit you like the Bieber song you hear on the radio—and that’s the only goal he really needed to accomplish in order to resuscitate his recording career.
The rest of Purpose mostly alternates between trap pop and syrupy slow jams that don’t offer the same degree of high-quality hooks as the pre-release singles. “Love Yourself” is essentially an Ed Sheeran song performed by Bieber, so one’s enjoyment of this caustic kiss-off will depend primarily on one’s tolerance for Sheeran’s bland acoustic pop. “Company” and “No Pressure” are amorphous, heavily processed goop, the latter of which offers a hilarious contradiction to “What Do You Mean?” (“Be more straight forward” now amended to “you ain’t gotta make your mind up”). “No Sense” is a Drake rip-off without the exciting verbal dexterity. And some of the tracks here are just laughably awful. The self-affirming piano ballad “Life is Worth Living” is another toothless apology for his bad behavior that largely undercuts the street cred accumulated by his hit singles. And when Bieber yells “what about the children?” over a thundering EDM beat on the appropriately-titled “Children,” it approaches Aldous Snow levels of unintentional pop parody.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold Bieber to an album standard when he has always been a singles artist, much like so many other pop stars. Justin Timberlake’s Justified was mostly forgettable save its four knockout singles. Hell, even Thriller had some filler. But it’s also not unfair to expect that given the impressive quality of its pre-release tracks, Purpose would live up to its own hype. “It’s like they want me to be perfect,” Bieber sings on the mildly petulant “I’ll Show You.” Actually, Justin, there’s where you’re wrong. We don’t expect you to be perfect—we just expect you to make good pop music. And there simply isn’t enough of it on Purpose.