Justin Bieber kicked off his bumpy 2013 by going after Justin Timberlake. On the day of the Grammys — which, as y’all surely recall, was something of a synergy-happy hours-long ad for JT’s The 20/20 Experience — JB released a sketch of a slinking Neptunes facsimile called “You Want Me” that began with the pop star declaring, “It’s me, Justin,” then pausing a second or two too long before adding, “Bieber.” With that unsuccessful, half-stepped trolling attempt out of his system, he spent the spring and summer tossing out a few interesting songs here and there, transitioning in the fall to a more focused series of excellent, murky slow jams delivered to the Internet for free as part of his “Music Mondays” gimmick. (Imagine a more slow-drip delivery of Miguel’s three-volume Art Dealer Chic project.) In late December, he packaged ’em all into a full album, Journals, along with five new songs.
Unfortunately, 2013 was also the year that Bieber started acting like a total dickhead in public. Quick partial rundown: He spit on someone, pissed in a restaurant on camera, argued with neighbors a whole bunch, wore some incredibly stupid when-swaggy-goes-wrong outfits, and suggested that Anne Frank might’ve been a Belieber. On Christmas Eve, he tweeted a retirement threat, and followed it up with a few petulant tweets about “the media”; the next day, his latest documentary, Believe, hit theaters and, to put it mildly, failed to match the success of 2011’s Never Say Never.
And so, you’re all forgiven for not knowing about Journals, or knowing about it and ignoring it, because you spent most of last year muttering, “This fuckin’ guy,” over and over. But here’s the thing: It’s one of the best R&B records of last year — or, if you prefer, one of the best records of 2014 so far. Sonically, it’s up there with Beyoncé in terms of holding tight to the patience of ’80s and ’90s R&B while never forgetting the sugar-rush rewards of pop.
Given that the sequencing here simply adheres to the chronological Music Mondays rollout, Journals holds together surprisingly well as a cohesive, well-paced collection of narcotic R&B. Content-wise, it’s “I’m sorry bb, I screwed up” guilt grooves and sub-Chris Brown fuck-you-anywhere blah blah blah, except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, oh boy, it’s bizarro, futuristic girl-as-E.T. codependency pop (“Backpack” featuring Lil Wayne); scrunched-up ficky-ficky rap and bullshit (“Confident,” featuring Chance the Rapper); dirty-minded, solemn, problematic sex-soul (“HYD,” featuring R. Kelly); freestyle-meets-Sonic the Hedgehog roller-skating grooves (“Roller Coaster”), and much more. Influences: Aaliyah, Drake, Maxwell, Miguel, Sade, and Usher out of EDM mode.
As a whole, this thing doesn’t scream out its newfound maturity or sophistication much at all — instead, that elegance is conveyed via denser production choices and our host’s artful crooning. And even if the guy now spends his days looking for “edge” IRL, there are no such ham-fisted attempts on Journals. Even the tracks with Lil Wayne, Future, and Big Sean — a very right-now mix of pop and “urban radio” signifiers crucial to any theoretical crossover attempt — Bieber sticks to his somber steez. The pillow-soft ballads work, too: His child-star-robot training mixed with his (presumably) natural naiveté makes his I’m-sorry seductions work — unlike, say, pandering lovermen like Drake and his minions, who all sound like they’ve studied Neil Strauss’ The Game, Bieber seems more clueless, more caught up in genuine lust and love. The Tony Rich Project-like “Change Me,” for example, feels sincere, at least. Even “One Life,” the one with a Drizzy writing credit, feels more deeply felt than Aubrey’s usual head-patting seductions when Bieber declares, “I wanna dream what you dream, go where you go / Only have one life / Only wanna live it with you.” It’s “YOLO” with a conscience.
Journals suggests that Bieber just needs to get out of his public persona’s way, and he might be afforded the respect he wants (or, arguably, has already earned). He’s no good in the Miley Cyrus provocateur role. There are similarities there — two teen stars maturing in plain view, and problematically (if organically) pushing into darker, more “adult” territory — but Bieber is far more mindful of the musical modes he’s hijacking. That he did a pretty good job — too good of a job, really — separating his amazing tendency to be a douche from his stellar soft-batch sonic mimicry is pretty, well, amazing. On Journals, you get to hear a teen-pop jerk suffer through the growing pains that’ll hopefully turn him into a smoothie sweetheart. Too bad there doesn’t seem to be much of an audience to cheer this grown-ass-R&B side of Bieber on.