Justin Bieber's Believe: A First Listen
Like my colleague Andrew Stout, I have mostly managed to avoid Justin Bieber for what I'm pretty sure are good reasons. He's a typical "innocent" white male singer trying to represent universality to nonwhites and nonmales. Then there's his musical blandness: bits that crept through my defenses of "Baby" and "One Time" sounded credible but unremarkable; that is, the Norah Jones to Usher's Nellie McKay. Which calls into question how much credibility the world needs in the first place. Give him the No. 1 album in America because he can quietly fake the mildest distillation of his medium. Let's get this over with.
"All Around the World"
Dancier than I was expecting, but then I don't know what I was expecting. I do know this: teen idols' Mature Second Moves have grown a lot more calculated in the interim since Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds. It's serviceable. But from the stutter-edit AutoTune to the Eurohouse synths to the off-tune dubstep-vaccuum-cleaner breakdown to the Luda cameo, I'm officially sick of half the elements making up this track. And if the leadoff is "People want to be loved/ They're no different from us" to make up for his PR snafu about taking the wrong side on gay marriage, well, it would sound more convincing from someone not trying to shove his new disco-friendly direction down our throats.
Swag swag swag swag swag swag swag swag swag. He doesn't just listen to the "Beez in the Trap" end of the radio spectrum, he reads the blogs, too. But if he'd really never let me go, then he'll tell me how he really feels about Lil B's new 878-track mixtape. Meanwhile, I'd never play this on purpose.
"As Long as You Love Me"
This really is shaping up to be the most cynical album I've heard all year -- this isn't even a song, just a collection of synth-squirting signifiers, or for the Bieber fans reading, a Tumblr post that's nothing but #tags. Love him and he'll be your platinum, your silver, your gold. Big Sean (on loan from Kanye) will be your (?) hallelujah. The other thing is, it's not actually bad to hear. But the Backstreet Boys' "As Long as You Love Me" was more sincere. Occasional vocal resemblance to Frank Ocean: creepy.
Entrancing bossa nova beat, curling guitars, utterly blank frontperson. But the songs are ultimately getting better here even if his workmanlike pop (in the I'll-try-anything-tasteful tradition of Timberlake and Beyonce) never produces so much as a quote. Girl you so contagious! (*sneeze*)
In case you're new to boy bands and their ilk, here's a primer: there are very good, distinctive, and even weird songs on not just N Sync's No Strings Attached, but New Kids on the Block's The Block: "Twisted"! "Summertime"! "Sexify My Love"! There is no weirdness about this happy slave, whose best-known entry into the public consciousness is the chorus "baby baby baby baby baby." This empty song boasts a cute little synth twerk nicked from old Nintendo games. But you don't need to hear it. Other people have even done that better by now.
"I just want to kiss you baby/ I just want to hug you til the end," goes the whiniest voice on the track -- a miracle when the manlier duet partner is Drake. I listen to a lot of pop music and I'm still genuinely jarred by what a completely empty white room Bieber's tracks evoke. Can I please just keep listing people who deserve the surely-Usher-assisted critical reassessment more than Bieber does? Miley Cyrus, Black Eyed Peas, Avril Lavigne, T-Pain's own albums...
"Let me tell you a story about a girl and a boy/ He fell in love with his best friend/ When she's around he feels nothing but joy" -- the tone of this track is so arid (and he keeps changing the perspective from third-person to second-) and the approach is so bland that it's impossible to tell if we should be celebrating because "a girl" is the "best friend" in question, or if this is the world's most boring love triangle. He just called her an angel, so I guess we're supposed to be happy for her. Effectively clever "Fall in love"/"I will catch you if you fall" wordplays on the title: zero.
"Die in Your Arms"
The title suggests that maybe he didn't catch the falling girl after all, but the Jackson 5 pianos suggest ding dong the witch is dead. "Would you lie to me baby?/ Because the truth hurts so much more" is kinda okay, and the chorus is the prettiest on the album so far. And the bridge! "Loving you is so damn easy to me"! I might hang onto this one, and I'm perfectly fine to chalk that up to the Jackson 5, too.
"Thought of You"
Maybe this album overslept and just woke up; a genuine melody asserts itself pretty quickly on this one -- or maybe he's been listening to that new Usher album after all. The high notes are impressive, the dancey 10-car-pileup does its spring-and-release thing. Not quite the celestial heights of, say, Nicki Minaj's "Automatic," but it's never bad for mass-market music to actual appeal to, you know, the masses.
"Beauty and a Beast"
Speaking of Nicki (and I swear I didn't even notice she was on the next track when I wrote that last one), here she is, hopefully the "beast" in question rather than the obvious. Oh wait, she's both! That's... a half-cliché. Luckily this uncrinkling (it's the only way to describe it, check the Skrillex dictionary) synth breakdown is on call for emergency originality -- not once but twice! As for Nicki, she's permitted to say "wiener" during her 16 bars. That's a big mature step for Bieber you guys!
Edit: Apparently this song is called "Beauty and the Beat" even though i swear he said "beast" and was calling someone it. Also I might've conflated this with Nicki Minaj being a beast who can probably eat Justin in one bite without needing to spit out his tiny, perfectly symmetrical bones.