POP/ROCK: Justin Bieber, "Believe" (Island)
Just how fast is Bieber allowed to grow up? And how much? Bieber, the defining teen star of recent years, turned 18 in March and has been in the public eye for almost four years, long enough to begin chafing. His desire to move in the world as an adult is palpable, but the scale of his celebrity exacts its own sort of toll. Bieber can be his own man, sure, so long as he continues to belong to everyone else too. He is in the difficult position of having a tremendous amount of capital to spend and only a few acceptable ways to spend it.
An R&B aspirant trapped in a pop universe, he has fewer options than you'd think. To make a CD somehow out of lockstep with the sounds of the day would be to risk leaving food on the table. By that measure, "Believe"-- his second full-length album -- is gluttonous, full of savvy compromises: between his natural gifts and the exigencies of radio; between warm, intimate vocals and music designed for arenas and clubs; between Bieber's beloved R&B and the dance-oriented pop currently in vogue.
He's tried this before. Singing the hook of Far East Movement's recent dance-rap club anthem "Live My Life," Bieber sounded bored, stripped of his beloved melisma, his gentleness no match for the song's relentless synthetic thump. The first song on his new album, "All Around the World," opens with a synth progression that could have been lifted straight from an Afrojack or Laidback Luke production. And this on a song that features Ludacris. Again, Bieber is buried in the mix, and it appears the album might get away from him in a swell of concessions.
But that's followed by "Boyfriend," the first single, which shifts gears radically and impressively. Spooky and minimal, it's Bieber's coming-out party as an adult: hip-hop buzzword filigree, his dampest sounding vocals and whispered come-ons. Erotic and also cheerily naïve, it was the perfect statement for a young man learning to behave like a grown-up in the public eye, making for one of this year's most electrifying singles.
Those are, in essence, this album's poles, the two impulses it needs to reconcile. Sometimes it takes on both at once, like on "As Long as You Love Me," in effect a dubstep love song. "Take You" also vacillates between up-tempo R&B and dance music theatrics, rendering Bieber all but anonymous. But on several songs Bieber strips away that artifice and leans on his instincts, spotlighting his best self. "Believe" is a king-size ballad where he sings unfettered. That's matched in intensity by the sun-dappled teen-crush soul of "Catching Feelings" and "Be Alright," a guitar-driven number.
Bieber is developing into a gifted vocalist, far less reliant on technology than he was two years ago. His voice is limber and wounded, more credible when begging or retreating, as on "Fall," than when aiming to steam up the room, as on "Out of Town Girl." And his falsetto consistently connects. Many of the best songs on "Believe" are young-love ballads, the sort that would have been credible for Bieber even a couple of years ago, though he might not then have had the voice to deliver them properly.