A careful reinvention

Justin Bieber’s latest offering balances pop genius with atmospheric minimalism.



Christian Davis, Writer

Earlier this year I wrote a piece on Kanye West’s career. I wanted to look at the public controversies and displays of arrogance and contextualized them within the life of a celebrity permanently in the public eye. The world never blinks when it looks at Kanye West, but even Yeezy had the luxury of a camera-free childhood. Justin Bieber was launched into the spotlight from virtually day one, and as such is victim to his own musical past. This is a crutch for most musicians, and while the escape velocity of “Purpose” is not enough to completely disconnect him from his teen heartthrob legacy, it nonetheless has the most nuanced and tasteful songs of Bieber’s career.

Flirting with Minimalism

Most of these tracks flirt with minimalism, often times using standard trap-style percussions over atmospheric synth-work. “Mark My Words” opens with zero percussion, but toes the line between awkward album-opener and tone setter. “Mark my words / that’s all that I have” is the first line sung on the record, a plea to shed any preconceived notions about what to expect from a Bieber record in 2015.

For the record, “Love Yourself” marks the first thing co-producer Ed Sheeran has contributed to the world I think is worth remembering. Sure, the harmonized horn riff towards the end is diet-Macklemore, and the petty break-up lyricism is the worst of the break-up poetry on “Purpose,” but the line “My momma don’t like you and she likes everyone” is pretty unforgettable. Moving forward, “No Pressure (feat. Big Sean)” screams early 2000s R&B, which ceased being relevant just when it was supposed to. The gentle acoustic guitar plucks feel dated, plunging Bieber backward when tracks like “What Do You Mean?” launch him forward.

Perfecting the Pop Anthem

“What Do You Mean?” is one of the most perfected pop anthems of the year, no question. Its genius lies in structure — the letdown after the triumphant chorus. It would have been so simple to extend and overdo the brilliant ‘80s pan flute-tinged synth riffs. Instead, the chorus drops out, and Bieber continues to repeat the song’s namesake, a seemingly desperate attempt to comprehend a failing relationship — paired with glaringly obvious metaphorical clock tick percussion.

Sonic Integrity

Guest contributors like Skrillex and Diplo certainly add a great deal to “Purpose” but Halsey’s contribution on “The Feeling” is the album’s obvious standout. Bieber has always dealt in broken heart pop anthems, but none have the same sonic integrity like these do.

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