Less than five minutes into ‘Purpose’ Justin Bieber claims, “My life is a movie and everyone’s watching”. In the three years since his last album, 2012’s ‘Believe’, that film has morphed from a Hangover-style comedy into something more tragic.
The 21-year-old Canadian has spent the past few years pissing – literally in some cases – on the squeaky clean image that propelled his first three records to more than 15m combined sales. As well as that incident with a bucket in a restaurant kitchen, he’s puked onstage in Arizona, worn a gas mask to dinner in London, clashed with paparazzi and been arrested for assault and dangerous driving in Canada.
This fourth album is Bieber’s chance to say sorry: its cold, urbane pop casts him as a wounded soul ready to move on. “Let’s get to the good bit and past all the nonsense”, he sings on ‘I’ll Show You’, one of five tracks produced by Skrillex. The EDM giant’s presence – along with exec producer Rick Rubin and “adviser” Kanye West – shows the music is changing too. ‘Purpose’ largely backs up the sense that this is an artist in transformation – a Disney pop money machine quietly blooming into an R&B sophisticate.
Much of the record echoes the dancefloor melancholy of the three banging singles that preceded it, ‘What Do You Mean?’, the Skrillex-produced ‘Sorry’ and ‘Where Are Ü Now’ (the summer-conquering collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo’s Jack Ü). Opener ‘Mark My Words’ is a burst of pitch-shifted vocals and apologetic promises (“Mark my words, they’re all that I have”). The funk-laced ‘Company’ is a hit-in-waiting, while ‘No Pressure’ is darker, a sprawl of bassy beats and personal epiphanies (“Don’t nobody deserve myself”) reminiscent of The Weeknd. Elsewhere, ‘No Sense’ sees Texan rapper Travis Scott bring the same slurring malice he brought to Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’, between motor-themed humblebrags from Biebs: “I’ve driven every car, ain’t the same without you”.
It doesn’t all work so well. ‘The Feeling’, featuring New Jersey pop sensation Halsey, and ‘Love Yourself’, written with Ed Sheeran, are more traditionally Bieber, and their big pop hooks are out of place amidst the forward-thinking electronic scuttle. Then there’s ‘Children’ – Bieber’s own ‘Earth Song’, which asks “What about the children?” before a hyperactive EDM drop from Skrillex. A good question about responsibility – but one that’d probably be better coming from a dude who didn’t abandon a pet monkey in a German airport in 2012.
But by the time ‘Purpose’ ends with a spoken-word segment about how Bieber “wasn’t necessarily put in the best position to make the best decisions” recently, it’s clear plenty of good choices have been made here. It’s not quite redemption – only time will tell if he’ll curb the recklessness – but it’s certainly a start at reinvention.
Read our exclusive interview with Justin Bieber in tomorrow’s free NME