[Def Jam Recordings]
One of the greatest unsung (:D) talents of many popular musicians is the ability to be utterly dislikeable people in many ways behind the scenes, yet still make music that is both affecting and rings true. Nobody has ever sat around and listened to ‘Jealous Guy’ and thought “what a prick”. Some artists have gotten around it by embracing their faults and playing up to them, with The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey being two prominent and recent examples. Which brings us to Justin Bieber and his new album Purpose.
Now, it’s not that he’s necessarily a Bad Guy (although given the last year or two’s worth of press he’s gotten, there’s a case to be made there) but it’s an album that really does him no favours. Bieber does not embrace his demons, but he also doesn’t completely ignore them either. He makes half-assed excuses, humble-brags and semi-apologises his way through a record that seems to be an attempt at redemption.
Purpose is not a terrible album musically, it’s just noticeably light on anything of substance which is made particularly glaring by the fact that he appears to be trying to make something that has a bit of weight to it. The Skrillex-produced ‘Children’ is one of the biggest misses here. Stunningly bad in every sense of the word, it is a song that is completely devoid of even one original sentiment and while not representative of the quality of the record, it is very much the zenith of the sort of contrived meaninglessness that pervades all of it.
In terms of content and meaning, Bieber is at his best when things are kept as simple as possible. The opening track, ‘Mark My Words’, features a simple refrain:
Mark my words, that’s all that I have
Mark my words, give you all I got
In every way I will
You’re the only reason why
Oh I don’t wanna live a lie
Mark my words
Mark my words
Apparently it’s the first of three efforts dedicated to his relationship with Selena Gomez, and it’s also the only one where he comes out with any sort of credit. On ‘Sorry’, which is actually quite-a-good-if-forgettable pop song he opens with the lines “You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty/You know I try but I don’t do too well with apologies”. With that sort of attitude, it’s hard to see where things went wrong really, isn’t it? This is immediately followed by the shambolic ‘Love Yourself’, co-written with noted horrible fuck Ed Sheeran. Here, he instructs Gomez to “go and love yourself” while also repeatedly mentioning that “my momma don’t like you and she likes everyone”. It’s a horrible little song in every sense, and once again Bieber comes across as bitter and petulant. Meanwhile, on ‘The Feeling’ – one of the best tracks on the entire album – featured artist Halsey does her best Selena Gomez on the hook.
There are a couple of interesting features including Big Sean, Travi$ Scott and, especially, Nas. Big Sean puts in an excellent turn (“Oh no, round two again/We’ve been fighting more than Ryu and Ken”) on the very good ‘No Pressure’. ‘No Sense’, featuring Scott, is also fun but yet again sees Bieber showing a remarkable lack of self-awareness (“I’ve driven almost every car/It ain’t the same when I’m without you”). Nas must have been roped into this by an iron-clad contractual stipulation that he just couldn’t get out of, because if his verse on ‘We Are’ isn’t the worst of his largely excellent career, it has to be a close second.
Elsewhere, ‘Where Are Ü Now’ with Skrillex and Diplo has more indirects for Selena Gomez along with a decent beat and hook while lead single ‘What Do You Mean?’ (I do hope I’m not the only one irked by the inexplicable lack of consistency in terms of grammar and spelling here) is another highlight. It isn’t that Purpose is a bad album or that Justin Bieber is untalented, he just seems to have very little to say and even less in terms of original ideas. When it comes to a singer or rapper choosing good producers or co-writers, they should be held as responsible as actors are for choosing good roles and scripts. Having the right personnel involved on Purpose would have made a world of difference but the production and the writing simply are not good enough to create a cohesive, interesting or otherwise really enjoyable album.