Pop music loves a good comeback narrative, especially if these stories involve an underdog overcoming adversity or a bad boy changing his spots. Perhaps that’s why the party line about Justin Bieber’s fourth studio album, Purpose, is that it’s all about rebirth: At the moment, the pop star needs to be perceived as likable, since his well-publicized instances of bad behavior—among them, throwing eggs at a house and getting a DUI—and the subpar response to 2013’s Journals have damaged his reputation.
On Purpose, Bieber succeeds at conveying sincere reflection and remorse on the breezy, island vacation-vibing “Sorry” and the nearly a cappella “Mark My Words.” The problem is, this transformation into a contrite good guy isn’t always so convincing. His casual, respectful vibe on the languid R&B jam “No Pressure” is undermined by Big Sean’s guest verse, during which the rapper calls women “hos” and subtly coerces a decision: “But it’s a waste of time if your waist ain’t on mine.” The brisk “What Do You Mean?” which is reportedly about ex Selena Gomez, boasts tranquil new-age electro production, but also plenty of insulting, “poor me” lyrics about a woman being indecisive and frustrating. And the simple, introspective piano ballad title track has its emotional vulnerability marred by a jarring spoken-word coda; the cumulative effect is that of a rambling pep talk that doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Purpose is also musically hit-or-miss. The treacly ballad “Life Is Worth Living” is overly earnest; Bieber’s sub-Timberlake vocal nods on the hip-hop-tinged, wandering “No Sense” are nasally; and the Ed Sheeran collaboration “Love Yourself,” despite being a nicely deadpan kiss-off to a snobby ex, is generic acoustic-pop. Yet Skrillex’s productions inject life into Purpose, from the EDM-scrambled “Children” to the tropical-forest electro mist “I’ll Show You,” while the Halsey-featuring dark-pop gem “The Feeling” features distinctive sounding, velvety production.
On these moments, Purpose is certainly successful at demonstrating Bieber’s ability to evolve and dabble in more mature music. But because the album is so hell-bent about pushing forward an agenda of redemption and establishing him as a serious artist, it lacks playfulness. That’s a major flaw: In the past, Bieber’s most engaging music possessed a roguish, lighthearted swagger. Purpose eschews this element for the sake of his reputation, which is a good thing from a career preservation standpoint. However, the album also takes itself so seriously that too often it inadvertently suppresses exactly what made Bieber so appealing in the first place.