I’ll be honest – I’d love be able to say that I hate Justin Bieber’s new album. Trust me, I’m not doing any favors for my street cred by praising the fourth studio album of a troubled pop star who breathed new life into his mangled public image by jumping on the EDM bandwagon at the phenomenon’s most decadent height. Nonetheless, I have to call it like I see it – and even though Purpose is undeniably a pop effort, it’s just plain sincere.
Bass music icon Skrillex was famously credited with producing the bulk of the album, and similar to most pop music, the songwriting process was immensely collaborative – with hitmakers like Ed Sheeran, Blood and Poo Bear credited on nearly every track. I’ve written endlessly about how much I hated Bieber’s first Skrillex collaboration (Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now”), and I was prepared to do it again in long form once I heard this album – but while at times the former artist may have waxed melodramatic or the latter may have gone overboard with that chipmunk vocal sample effect that he seems to love so much lately, the whole of it simply sounds less manufactured than what I would have expected from their first album as an unlikely duo of sorts.
The album tastefully begins with a track that had not been teased early. The lower tempo of “Mark My Words” may start things off on a somber note, but it segues fittingly into “I’ll Show You” before picking up with “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry,” and “Love Yourself” – all of which premiered ahead of the album’s release.
Once those tracks are out of the way, though, Purpose opens up and its stylistic range becomes evident. “Company,” “No Pressure” and “No Sense” sprinkle some urban grit on the effort, with the latter two songs featuring Big Sean and Travis Scott, respectively.
Then, “The Feeling” arrives. From the stutter edit effects on Bieber’s crisp vocals to the vibrantly melodic upswell at each chorus, this track demonstrates what Bieber and Skrillex are capable of when firing on all cylinders, with each artist fully utilizing their respective strong suit. “The Feeling” is the best track on Purpose, and marks the turning point at which I went ahead and accepted that I liked this album.
“Life is Worth Living” makes up for its stripped-down simplicity with lyrical richness. A passage at the bridge that goes, “They try to crucify me / I ain’t perfect won’t deny it / My reputation’s online / So I’m workin’ on a better me,” for instance, provides a window through which the listener can see Bieber’s day-to-day reality, and perhaps even empathize with him for a fleeting moment.
Skrillex makes a vocal cameo of his own on “Children,” which also just so happens to sound the most fist-pumpingly EDM of any track on the album. The title song comes next, and in this song Justin Bieber’s breathy top line glows against the backdrop of a meandering piano melody. “Been You” and “Get Used To Me” showcase a further exploration of electronic music sub genres, Nas drops an unexpected verse on “We Are,” and the R&B inclination of “Trust” makes it a strong radio single candidate.
After “All In It,” and “Hit The Ground,” which seem somewhat like filler when compared to the rest of the album, Purpose ends with a variation in production of “Where Are Ü Now” titled “The Most” – and it doesn’t feel possible, but I actually like it. Where the original went overboard with samples, edits, and a woodwind instrument-mocking synth melody that will haunt my nightmares as long as I live, “The Most” whittles the core concept down to its bare essentials, and those bare essentials just plain work.
It was the last thing I would have ever expected, but maybe Justin Bieber was what Skrillex needed to start putting out respectable music again. After all, Purpose is all that and then some. Granted, what we’re talking about is extremely accessible, entry-level music geared towards an audience that is perhaps even further behind in the process of discovering who they are than Bieber himself is, but the fact that it somehow manages not to sound like the product of a board meeting – and, in fact, boasts quite a few poignant moments – makes it a definite creative milestone for both artists.