This week, teen-idol-of-the-moment Justin Bieber released his second proper full-length, Believe, a record studded with cameos by the likes of Drake and Nicki Minaj and stuffed with different styles of music—from R&B to simply sung acoustic-guitar balladry to something that’s either arena rock or moombahton, or maybe a hybrid of both. (The song in question was produced by Diplo, so the latter might very well be true.) In the wake of this monumental pop event, the Voice‘s Maura Johnston and Nick Murray got on the horn (or, rather, Gchat) to discuss the album.
Maura Johnston: So the official narrative goes that Justin Bieber’s Believe is his “growth” album, the one where he gets rid of the floppy hair and lets his changed voice lead the proceedings. His… justification of himself as an artist, if you will. And I guess the last track on the album, “Maria,” is the exclamation point on that statement—it’s a broadside against the woman who famously accused him of fathering her child last year.
Nick Murray: Yeah totally, and it’s a bit unexpected to hear something so specific and so autobiographical at the end of an album whose lyrics are almost unanimously generic. I don’t mean that in a bad way, of course, just that when Bieber tells us(?), someone(?), Selena(?), whoever, that he could just die in our arms, he’s not revealing much about himself. That being said, I think the albums last few tracks are particularly smart. “Maria” is the broadside, but it’s a sympathetic one, particularly following “She Don’t Like the Lights,” which uses camera flashes as percussion (the teenpop equivalent to the gun sounds in Waka’s “Bustin’ at Em?” and tells the opposite story, of a girl who avoids fame rather than seeks it.
Justin Bieber, “Be Alright”
NM: “Be Alright,” the penultimate track on the non-deluxe, non-Ticketmaster, non-Best Buy version of the ultimate, is pretty great too. The song itself isn’t particularly special, but after the dubstep, Diplo, and Euro-inflected dance music, it recalls (and here’s where I out myself and knowing way too much about JB) the video of him playing his acoustic guitar on the curb as a 13 year-old, a video that is surely familiar to most of his biggest fans. (Maura, I know you saw Never Say Never, so maybe you can back me up here? Maybe? Please?) Either way, on that one, the “you” has to be the listener, the long-time Belieber who he’ll always be there for, even as his music and haircut slowly evolve.
Does that sound right to you? What’s your take on the song, the growth, or the haircut? Or should we skip straight to the dubstep?
MJ: Ha, the camera flashes on “Lights” actually reminded me of how JC Chasez manipulated Pac-Man for ‘N Sync’s “The Game Is Over”!
I first heard the album at a listening session hosted by Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun, and when “Be Alright” came on I wrote, “this is his ‘More Than Words’!” After all the clutter of the record, it really, yes, does show why he became so famous. It’s charming and sweet, and the way it ends with a laugh is almost like his recorded version of “SWAK” on the back of an envelope. I think that and “Believe” are dual love letters that are more squarely aimed at his fanbase than anything else.
But OH the dubstep. I listen to so many new records that have nods to it being a trend and maybe it’s because I’m old, but to my ears it already sounds pretty tired.
NM: Ha, I’m continually amused by the cult of personality that surrounds Scooter Braun. As a major Backstreet Boys/N*SYNC fan from back in the day (more on that when I write my First Worst in a few days), I can’t remember even hearing the name “Lou Pearlman” until I got older and learned what an asshole he was.
Regardless, I like the dubstep! That sentence makes me sound hopelessly out of touch, but more specifically, I was kind of wowed by “As Long as You Love Me.” I’m really into not only the softness of Bieber’s voice, but also the softness of the track, which resists the big dubstep drop and instead tangles itself up with his stuttering “La-la-la-la” ‘s. I’m also a closet Big Sean fan, so there’s that.
Justin Bieber feat. Big Sean, “As Long As You Love Me”
MJ: Yeah, “As Long As You Love Me” is definitely lovely—I just get an itch when I hear those wub-wubs and wobbles. It’s definitely tastefully used in this case—although I could probably do without the vocal matching of the “lu-lu-lu-lu” beats. Also, the way he says “you could be my Destiny’s Child”—how old was he when “Bug A Boo” came out, anyway? Do you think he knows what a pager is?
When I was at the listening session, Scooter Braun was very proud of this being An Album—there was definitely rhetoric about this being not just “fluff,” but art, flying around the whole time. It seems like Bieber’s been around for a long time, but Believe is only his second proper full-length. Do you think reaching for the brass ring of artistry now is a premature move? I mean, okay, I have to bring the other Justin up here (you can’t spell “Timberlake” without all the letters in “Bieber,” you know?), but he had a little bit more of a grooming period before “Gone,” the ‘N Sync song that I would say was his “Careless Whisper” premature-solo-career move, came out. Is the Biebs just operating on Internet time? Or are his handlers realizing that there’s probably another whippersnapper coming up right now, and trying to have him avoid the fate of whatever Jonas Brother was on that dating show that rips off The Voice?
NM: I might have answered this differently had you asked me a few hours ago, before I read Chris Molanphy’s excellent column about “Call Me Maybe” and Island Def Jam’s struggle to get “Boyfriend” played on the radio, which really helps to contextualize part of the reason why Bieber needs to release what Scooter Braun would call art. To some extent, it sounds like Braun was saying the sort of thing managers are paid to say, particularly a listening session for critics and insiders. On the other hand, it also seems as though Bieber is a very mature musician for his age, and not just because he makes wonderful throwback R&B tracks like “Catching Feelings” and the aforementioned “Die in Your Arms.” Listening to Believe, it struck me how much Bieber’s drumming roots add to the sound of the record. He’s not playing drums anywhere, of course, but even on those Euro-dance numbers, they’re always different. I mean, the hook to “Thought of You” is a step away from moombahton. What are your thoughts?
Justin Bieber, “Thought Of You”
MJ: I should note that when I first heard “Thought Of You” I didn’t think of moombahton or Diplo (who produced it), but of lumbering ’80s arena rock—the big keyboard downbeats on the verses giving way to that soaring chorus.
Very Greatest American Hero. Maybe that’s his next move!
But it’s true, Scooter was probably playing to the crowd (particularly the people sitting in the nice orange chairs that had RESERVED FOR PRESS signs on them) with that statement. Yet I do feel like, say, unlike so many other albums that are coming out even now, in the age of endless a la carte, “Believe” does actually work all the way through. There aren’t any throwaway songs. Shoot, the song with the Nicki Minaj cameo is track 10!
Justin Bieber feat. Drake, “Right Here”
NM: Love the Greatest American Hero comparison. This record works from so many angles, and in a way that’s much deeper and more interesting that the “This the track for the teens! This is the track for the club-goers! This is the track for the serious listeners!” approach. There aren’t many listeners who could listen to these songs with an open mind and not find something for them, even if it’s as simple as the flashbulbs recalling an ‘N Sync album track. I love watching Questlove geek out over the crispness of the “Right Here” drums on twitter yesterday, and not just because it verified my similar reaction.
MJ: Don’t you think that’s indicative of the environment he came up in though? Like, I was talking to a friend of mine about this, about how kids Bieber’s age have had access to so much music that shifting through styles is natural for them.
MJ: The question is, though, is there one song that will sway the non-believers—the people who operate from a default position that any artist who appeals to teenage girls has nothing to offer and never will?
MJ: I think that “Out Of Town Girl” could be it, if you cut out the big at the end where he says “swag” 80 or so times.
NM: I would have picked “Boyfriend,” since it’s such a departure from anything on My World 2.0, and because those types are often impressed by minimalism. “Out of Town Girl” would work too. That being said, does Bieber need to appeal to those people? At this point, the burden is on them, right?
MJ: Well if he wants a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 he sort of does, no? And frankly, given the caliber of cameos on the album—Drake! Minaj!—I’m surprised that adults still seem cool toward him. Does he need to find a Timbaland and put out a more singular statement, a la FutureSex/LoveSounds?
NM: Is there a Timbaland to find?
MJ: But there is a bit of a behind-the-scenes hodgepodge going on here. Max Martin, Diplo, Mike Posner (swoon)…
NM: Yeah, do you think Bieber’s problem is that the producers who dominate pop the way Tim and the Neptunes did way back when—I’m thinking of guys like Guetta and Calvin Harris—don’t really make songs for vocalists, or end up producing out many of the differences between them? Not sure the extent to which that’s true, and there are obvious exceptions (Gaga/RedOne, for instance), but it seems like on some level, he’s on his own right now.
Justin Bieber, “Out Of Town Girl”
MJ: The key to him being alone is I think the fact that he’s a solo male who skews more pop than R&B.
NM: Well, he’ll always have Scooter.
MJ: Which might be more of a boon to him in the end, since Justin Bieber The Brand [tm] will probably make more money than Justin Bieber the musician.
NM: Oh absolutely, not that the two are really separable.
MJ: Well, Timberlake is trying to do just that…
NM: What do you mean?
MJ: Don’t you think he’s trying to enter the post-musician phaseof his career?
NM: Sure, but I think the fact that he was (is?) a musician is a key part to that brand. Like, I was re-watching the criminally underrated Southland Tales recently, and even though he’s acting his character, a scarred sniper who has just returned from Fallujah, gets a lot of its depth from the way in which it’s ramen-haired Justin Timberlake from N*SYNC looking through the scope. Then when (if?) he returns to the studio, all of the work he’s been doing in the mean time will become the basis for the narrative that surrounds the eventual album. Ditto Bieber: The Believe record is only one arm of a brand that will continue developing up to and maybe beyond the point where he stops making music and/or eventually goes bald.
We’re pretty far from where we started right now, but we’re also back talking about narrative, so maybe this is a good time to begin wrapping this up? Do you have some final thoughts?
MJ: Yes, I have three.
1. I think “Thought Of You” could be a late-summer anthem. It’s ideal for those nights when the vague awareness that the fun is about to end is just starting to take hold.
Justin Bieber, “Catching Feelings”
2. “Catching Feelings” has a breezy, “Irreplaceable”-as-sung-by-Lloyd feel, and I think it could break over to the always-crucial-if-never-spoken-of adult-contemporary market. But I feel like a lot of this is dependent on people understanding what the song’s title means.
3. Twice during the listening session I wrote down “‘My Girls’ synths.” Do you think the Biebs is taking subtle cues from Pitchfork???
NM: I think that’s a good note to end on. Perhaps we should agree to meet back here two years from now and debate his next LP’s Britt Daniels and A$AP Ferg features?
MJ: Sounds like a plan!!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 21, 2012