At the age of 13, Justin Bieber signed a record deal. Plucked out of Ontario and dropped into Atlanta to work with Usher, he had his first hit single — “One Time,” written by The-Dream — at 15. He’s 19 now, with two films, two world tours and five albums under his belt. He’s been enormously successful, of course — Americans of every age know his name, and Forbes estimates he makes about $60 million a year. But 2013 was when the chugging Bieber machine started to cough up smoke.
Last spring, his Believe tour brought him to Europe, where things did not go well. In Germany he abandoned his pet monkey and in Sweden police confiscated drugs from his tour bus. He collapsed backstage in London and was hospitalized. In Amsterdam he said something very naive about Anne Frank. On this side of the Atlantic, he has become an acquaintance of the LAPD, who have investigated him for assault, reckless driving and, most recently and ridiculously, egging his neighbors’ house. His friends have been charged with wrecking his cars and possessing cocaine, and in January a paparazzo was killed while chasing him in L.A.
The narrative is that Bieber, like nearly every mega-teen star before him, is beginning to crack under the intense weight of fame. But judged against the majority of 19-year-olds, Bieber’s discretions seem rather normal. His vices — save for, perhaps, the Brazilian brothel — are familiar: pot, tattoos, graffiti, speeding, eggs. What we are seeing is a teenager thrashing through the process of discovering his identity, with the twist that he also produces pop music consumed by millions. Conveniently for us, Bieber capped this year of tumult with Journals, a 15-track album that adds five new songs to a series of one-off singles.
Here, too, he is fidgeting with his identity. On Journals, Bieber slips into the role of the playboy: When he isn’t singing explicitly about sex, he is apologizing for the dissolution — and, crucially, begging for the reformation — of a relationship. The record is coherent and smooth and consciously positions his music as suitable for adult consumption, which is no small leap. His 2012 studio album Believe nudged his sound in that direction, but maintained the sparkly gleam of teen-pop, be it in the Glee-ready bubblegum-soul of “Die in Your Arms,” the sugar-sweet innocence of the Drake duet “Right Here” or any of the various dance beats. The edgiest moment on the album came from Nicki Minaj, who made a reference to Bieber’s on-and-off girlfriend Selena Gomez. But even Minaj, one of rap’s most electric artists, was sanded down: One punchline hinges on her saying the word “wiener.”
There is no “wiener” on Journals. Instead, there is “Hold Tight,” in which Bieber croons his way through the line “Them lips won’t let me go.” Just to make sure everyone is on the same page, he later sings, “That thing is swollen.” If that sounds impossible to listen to without laughing, it’s because it is. In the same way Bieber will one day cringe at some of his antics over the last year, he will almost certainly wish he never recorded a song where he compares a vagina to a Ziploc bag. This sort of mildly uncomfortable maturity is emphasized on the R. Kelly collaboration “PYD,” which stands for “put you down.” Formless by design, it’s less a song than a showcase for both singers’ vocals. I’ll let you guess which of the two sounds best.
Better are the tracks that hit a particular late-’90s/early-’00s sweet spot when R&B and pop were in the process of colliding. “Bad Day” sounds like a Babyface track as sung by Nick Carter (this turns out to be a good thing, promise) but it’s “Recovery” — which deftly samples Craig David’s 2000 classic “Fill Me In” — that perhaps most baldly reveals the blueprint. Later there are tracks that give a hint of where Bieber’s music might be going: His voice sounds most soulful on the Chance the Rapper collaboration “Confident,” and “What’s Hatnin’” — which sports an especially affecting cameo from Future — could be a radio hit today.
Considering Journals is mostly a collection of free tracks, we shouldn’t be too serious about its quality. But if Bieber is beginning to be groomed as the next male icon of pop music, it’s fair to wonder if he’s going to be up to the challenge. Journals is a nice album, but too often an anonymous one, which is an issue that has plagued his music from the jump. What Bieber’s next album — provided there even is one — needs most is frisson: Soon it will be time for his “Cry Me a River,” the type of undeniable mind-bender that announces him as an artistic force.
But maybe what he needs first is a guiding hand, the partner who can help him make the type of pop that builds a legacy. Timberlake had Timbaland, Usher had Jermaine Dupri and Michael Jackson had Quincy Jones, but it seems as if Bieber has yet to find the one person who can raise him to that level. Journals, like Believe, is an amalgamation of beats and songwriters, and though the tracks fit together fine there is no strong center.
Though Beyoncé’s latest album is a glowing example that the artist alone can be magnetic enough for a complete work to form out of disparate parts, Justin Bieber probably isn’t Beyoncé. So who, then, is around? One answer comes from rap music: In 2012 Bieber spent time in the studio with Mike WiLL Made It, the Atlanta producer who notched a dozen Hot 100 hits in 2013. He also executive produced Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz, a fantastic, agitating pop album that redefined her career.
Mike WiLL’s strength is his malleability: In 2013 he produced the year’s best feather-soft ballad (Ciara’s “Body Party”), one of rap radio’s most menacing singles (Ace Hood’s “Bugatti”), and a piano-pop crossover with a streak of patois (Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop). On Future’s debut album Pluto, Mike Will pushed him to sing his heart out and, in doing so, laced him with both a zero gravity intergalactic love song (“Turn on the Lights”) and the blues (“Truth Gonna Hurt You”). His sound unmistakably has roots in Southern rap (Mike WiLL got his start producing for Gucci Mane), but the vines sprout up and tangle around every other sound on the radio.
Mike WiLL is in the process of discovery, too. He is pushing against the outer reaches of his own sound, and seems to connect with artists that have that same desire — Future’s latest single “Real and True” sounds like Coldplay. With both Cyrus and Future, Mike WiLL has been able to tap into each artist’s essence and draw out fully fleshed personas — Future as a street hustler who returns home to croon, Cyrus as a brash, but bruised, polyglot — with albums to match.
It’s a process reliant on forming a personal bond that may not be there with Bieber, but nonetheless it would be exciting to see where these two — both juggling new sounds and identities — would take each other. Bieber needs not a total overhaul, but as the music industry continues to splinter Mike WiLL is one of the few people standing at the point where pop, R&B and rap intersect. And if the best art is drawn from turmoil, Bieber’s life is offering up plenty of material.