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Review: Sorry Seems to Be the Easiest Word for Justin Bieber on ‘Purpose’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Label: Def Jam

On national television a year ago, Justin Bieber told us this would happen. A half-decade into his pop career, and at his professional low point after an endless stream of PR nightmares, Bieber sportingly endured the greatest public undressing any egomaniacal 20-year-old has ever received, at his very own Comedy Central roast. After two hours of getting belted with just about every low blow imaginable — down to comedian-of-the-moment Hannibal Burress straight-up declaring “I just don’t like you at all, man” — the Biebs finally took the mic to explain himself. “There’s been moments I’m really proud of and a lot of moments I look back and I’m pretty disappointed in myself for… for that, I’m sorry. But what I can say is I’m looking forward to being someone that you guys can all look at and be proud of.” The whole evening was an act of contrition and humility previously unimaginable of such a historic peacock as Bieber. But the overall message of his final words was clear: I’ll be back.

A Justin Bieber comeback was never a guaranteed thing. As talented a musician, performer, and fanbase flame-stoker as Bieber was for his four-year run at music’s zenith, his artistry was never so undeniable as a teen star that he would be destined to follow Justin Timberlake’s career path, and not Aaron Carter’s. Having been villainized by the media and cast as the louse in his breakup with fellow Top 40 titan Selena Gomez, the now-post-adolescent star’s momentum further stalled with 2013’s #MusicMondays singles series and the ensuing compilation, Journals: A self-pitying, misogynistic, and mostly dreary run of breakup ballads that locked the door to Bieber’s teen-pop career behind him. However, though the set was a commercial disaster — sales were so low his camp ensured iTunes numbers weren’t even reported to Billboard — it was Bieber’s first work that didn’t feel groupthought, and it was transfixing enough in its minor-keyed myopia to make you wonder if the fallen star might be capable of a second act after all.

With Purpose, the answer is clear by the end of the second track. “My life is a movie, and everyone’s watching,” Bieber teases in the opening line to “I’ll Show You,” underlining his typical braggadocio with insecurity and quiet paranoia. His voice is worlds removed from the pinched, melismatic frenzy he found himself lost in on Journals: lower, calmer, sturdier, and delicately cradled by Skrillex’s glass-case-of-emotion production. Though the song’s verses threaten to dwell in the same woe-is-me patter of that collection, the chorus reveals his lamentations as a setup for his ashes-rising: “Act like you know me, but you never will / But there’s one thing that I know for sure / I’ll show you.” At that, he’s baptized by a waterfall of gorgeous Skrillex synths, grown up in an instant, as JT was the first time the Neptunes laid their strum-and-clang underneath his limber feet. It’s as electric a moment as you’ll hear in pop this year.

“I’ll Show You” also reveals that as much as fans may have wanted Purpose to address his on-off relationship with Gomez, Bieber’s far more concerned about rekindling his relationship with the general public. “Sorry,” the set’s most recent single and another Skrillex co-production, is the lone apology that sounds the most like it actually might addressed to a single person. Like any number of classic Motown songs, “Sorry” understands that take-me-back songs are always more persuasive when they sound like fun you’re missing out on, and the song’s euphoric drop is a better second-chance argument than any the singer could present himself. But Bieber’s still a little too proud to beg; he undercuts the penitence of his verses by deflecting “You know there are no innocents in this game for two,” and by never actually delivering the titular apology, merely asking if doing so would still be productive.

Far more convincing is the Ed Sheeran co-penned “Love Yourself,” which immediately follows “Sorry,” and totally dissolves any good karma that the previous track could’ve bought. An earth-salting, cruelly chuckling kiss-off track, it features an unprecedented-for-Bieber caliber of lyrical detail (“All the clubs you get in using my name,” “My momma don’t like you / And she likes everyone”), and its minimal arrangement — just Justin, Ed, guitar, and a brief flurry of trumpets — allows every lyrical barb to pop like one of the song’s palm-mutes. For such sour grapes, though, “Love Yourself” still sounds exultant; one of many reminders this year — along with him memorably shading teen heartthrob successor Shawn Mendes and pleading ignorance to Bette Midler’s existence — that for all his insistence on being a good person, Bieber may ultimately be best served as a Top 40 heel.

Still, the cad’s more likable on Purpose than he’s ever been. If he hasn’t been totally humbled by the experiences of his past few years, they’ve at least softened his white-knighting tendencies — there are no accounts here of Justin offering to save you from your unappreciative boyfriend, your fear of falling in love, or your low self-esteem, which by default makes it his least-sexist work to date. He even takes a stab at respecting a woman’s right to say no on a couple songs in the album’s middle, claiming to “just wanna have a conversation” on “Company” and offering “You ain’t gotta make your mind up right now, no rush” on “No Pressure.” His vocal over-eagerness on the latter betrays his newfound patience a little — as do his claims of “Now I need you, not a moment later” and “I wanna love you all over the place” — but for an artist whose gender politics have been nearly on par with Keith Hernandez for most of his young career, it’s something.

It was never the evolution of Bieber’s character that was going to save him from pop exile, though — it would always be up to the songs, two of which were already on their way to the 21st-century canon months before Purpose’s release. The tick-tock intro of lead single “What Do You Mean” emerges from the fog of “I’ll Show You” like a two-step sunrise, and makes it instantly clear that radio ubiquity hasn’t dulled the song’s shine one bit, its trop-pop groove still bouncing with video-game weightlessness and hoverboard-smooth momentum. Meanwhile, the song that started it all — Bieber’s cred-establishing and career-redefining Jack Ü collaboration “Where Are Ü Now” — is also here, and similarly well-timed, redeeming the set’s most execrable moment (the all-around groan-worthy martyr ballad “Life Is Worth Living”) by the end of its stereo-panned lead-in. These songs had to be good enough to shift an entire career’s narrative on their own. They did.

Like Believe, Bieber’s previous studio LP, Purpose ends with its title track, another motivational paean to a nameless source of inspiration. In 2013, the subject was most plausibly interpreted as being manager Scooter Braun, mother Pattie Mallette, or the ever-faithful Belieber army; this time around, the best guess would probably be Judah Smith, the pastor who the now-20-year-old credits with help setting him back on the righteous path after his years-long dark period, or maybe even God directly. But in truth, the song’s cries of “You give me purpose” should probably be taken literally by every single listener — if there’s one message that the album makes clear, it’s that loneliness made Justin Bieber realize it’s us that he needs, and that he was willing to do whatever it took to get us back. And by giving us the best album of his career, and subsequently re-ascending to Top 40’s mountaintop, Bieber’s answered his own question: In pop music, it’s never too late to say you’re sorry.