Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Changes finds Justin Bieber on the bumpy road to maturity

Illustration for article titled iChanges/i finds Justin Bieber on the bumpy road to maturity
Photo: Ricky Vigil M/GC Images (Getty Images)
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Justin Bieber last released a studio album in 2015: the Grammy-nominated Purpose. However, the pop star has been doing anything but resting on his creative laurels in the last half-decade. He’s been a featured artist on a string of No. 1 singles—including Major Lazer’s “Cold Water,” a remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One”—and landed hits with EDM producer DJ Snake, country stars Dan + Shay, and his fellow pop iconoclast Ed Sheeran. These eclectic collaborations not only helped Bieber continue to transcend his teen-pop sound—they also cemented that his boundary-pushing on Purpose was no fluke.

Perhaps the futuristic vibrancy of these songs explains why Bieber’s latest solo album, the subdued and monotonous Changes, sounds like a step backward. Although his increased vocal confidence and ability to tease out emotional nuance are welcome developments, the music doesn’t match this bold progress. Pastel soul-pop and watery R&B slow jams abound, spiced up occasionally by earnest guitar licks (the Justin Timberlake-esque “E.T.A.” boasts prominent bluesy strums), piano flourishes (highlight “Confirmation”), or rattling trap rhythms (“Available”).

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Unfortunately, Changes’ production sounds dated—the numerous people tweeting that the album’s beats resemble ringtones aren’t far off—and the melodic hooks are flat and unmemorable. If anything, the album’s most enduring moments come when Bieber gets a boost from featured artists. The Quavo-featuring earworm “Intentions” boasts a twisting, sticky melody, Bieber’s skyscraping falsetto, and some clever wordplay (“Heart full of equity / You’re an asset”); Post Malone and Clever bring gruff vulnerability to the longing “Forever”; and on the chilled-out R&B duet “Get Me”—a song boasting moody production full of whirrs, clicks, and squiggles—Kehlani adds soulful harmonies and lead lines. Overall, however, Changes sounds like the kind of inoffensive music you’d hear while trying on clothes in a store dressing room lit by harsh fluorescent lighting.

Thematically, the album focuses on ideas like embracing unconditional love, eschewing solipsism, and making time to support a partner—all topics no doubt influenced by Bieber’s 2019 marriage to Hailey Baldwin. Highlights include “Habitual,” a sweet meditation on romantic gratitude, and the earnest “Take It Out On Me,” on which Bieber promises to “be your punching bag” if need be. The no-frills honesty of these songs is welcome; the tunes offer generous emotional depth that hits the mark.

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On the downside, Changes is also marred by wildly inconsistent lyrical quality and sometimes facile sentiments. The single “Yummy” feels unfinished (“Yeah, you got that yummy-yum / That yummy-yum, that yummy-yummy”), while the sincerity of the blissful “Forever” is marred by clunky imagery: “Set my feelings to the side, they all got dusty on a shelf / Wiped them down when I had nothin’ left.” And “Come Around Me” is a study in contrasts: The lyrics focus on thinly veiled double entendres and cringey come-ons (“When you come around me / Do me like you miss me / Even though you been with me”), but then suddenly the songwriters elevate the song’s vocabulary by working the word “expeditiously” into a line.

Changes resonates more when Bieber drops the bravado and digs deep about where he is in his own personal journey. “Confirmation,” which scans like a surefire future wedding dance staple, offers the reassuring lines, “All you ever really want / All you ever really need is at home.” And on the title track, he ruminates about the personal transformations he’s experiencing, and references his faith directly: “People change, circumstances change / But God always remains the same.” Artists can certainly grow up and mature without losing their edge or creative spark. Changes, however, is ultimately a transitional record that finds Bieber navigating how to reconcile adulthood with pop stardom—and discovering that, at least in his case, this merger is a tricky one.

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Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.

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