Justin Bieber hasn’t put out a solo single in over a year but the last 365 days have been his, with two No. 1 singles bearing his name, and two others hitting the top five. Those songs have all felt kinda novel, too. He sounds appropriately vulnerable on the plunging EDM of Major Lazer‘s “Cold Water” (peak: No. 2), while DJ Snake‘s “Let Me Love You” (peak: No. 4) is the flip, a ballad of quiet strength. His turn on Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee‘s “Despacito” (peak: No. 1) is complicated by him not knowing the stilted Spanish he sings on the song, but his boyishness works as a counterpoint to his surroundings. On the elastic production of DJ Khaled‘s “I’m the One” (peak: No. 1) he proves himself to be a capable rap hook singer, and sounds happy, too, which is a rarity. He’s a bit more anonymous on David Guetta‘s recent “2U” (peak: No. 16), erased by a monstrous drop that harkens back to EDM’s roots as an elaborate Daft Punk homage, but that too feels sorta poignant—Justin Bieber swallowed by the machine.
The thread here is that Bieber has become the go-to guest for a producer looking for a smash hit, the kingmaker in an era swarming with collaborations between dance producers and vocalists. So it’s not in the least bit surprising that he headlines “Friends,” a new single (and not a feature, apparently) with BloodPop, the producer once named Blood Diamonds, who was behind the boards along with Skrillex for Bieber’s own “Sorry,” as well as two other songs on his album Purpose. The two proved to have a certain chemistry there (“I’ll Show You,” the second song on Purpose, is its best non-single), but “Friends” feels a bit safe, like a package off the assembly line meant to be, above all, reliably sold to the consumer.
The song, aside from BloodPop’s involvement, was co-written with Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, the powerhouse pop duo that also co-wrote “Sorry.” The four seem to nod overtly at that song—”Friends” has the same little between-beat drum fills as “Sorry,” as well as its pitched-up vocal counterpoints—but this one shifts away from dancehall-adjacent tropical-house in favor of the taught, chugging rhythms of the ’80s, which are well-worn within contemporary pop in their own right by now. The song’s closest relative is probably Halsey‘s “Strangers,” the duet with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, which streaks across the night sky in much the same way.
Bieber, for all his flaws, is an adept salesmen of emotions, especially of heartbreak and distance, colored by his real life as a cloistered mega-celebrity. But here, he’s given a tall task: to assume the identity of a regular person. “I was wondering about your mama / Did she get that job she wanted?” this one starts. “Sold that car that gave her problems? / I’m just curious about her, honest.” It is—much like when Justin Timberlake infamously sang, “Hi, my name is Bob / and I work at my job”—impossible to buy Bieber as the sort of person who has conversations about unemployed moms with broken cars, and he’s not the sort of singer who can yet adopt the persona of a character within his music.
The song rights itself with its chorus, in which Bieber asks the girl on the other end of the line if they can at least be friends, which itself harkens back to the punkish d-bagginess of “Sorry.” That line is very much believable, and given that “Friends” was constructed by several of contemporary pop’s most efficient hitmakers, the chorus is pleasing and digestible. If we all have to hear “Friends” endlessly for the rest of the year, well, there could be many worse fates, but either way it nudges us closer and closer to the point where Bieber should probably disappear for a while and let somebody else do the singing.