When the staccato, Neptunes-ian single “Boyfriend” was released in March, musical prognosticators were quick to peg the album it portended, Believe, as Justin Bieber’s Justified, a grown-and-sexy, R&B-centric departure that evolved millennial teenybopper Justin Timberlake into one of the unifying pop-music figures of the aughts. Unfortunately, Believe is not that, though it certainly aspires to be. The 18-year-old Bieber can’t quite pull off the “adult” thing just yet: His voice may have dropped a bit since the days of “Baby,” but it still mostly registers as “angelic,” and veers toward a pubescent whine at times. More significantly, rigid deference to Bieber’s still-young core fan base keeps things resolutely PG, with any acknowledgement of sex either couched in vague “touch your body” workarounds or downgraded to desirous hand-holding and eye-gazing. The neutering extends to Believe’s guest stars, with warm-and-fuzzy verses from Ludacris (“I love everything about you / You’re imperfectly perfect”), Big Sean (“I don’t know if this makes sense, but you’re my hallelujah”), Nicki Minaj (who at least squeaks a “bitches” into her verse), and especially Drake, whose desire to hug and kiss the object of his affection on “Right Here” is reminiscent of The Red Hot Chili Peppers on Krusty’s Comeback Special.
The closest Believe gets to scandalous is on the deluxe-edition bonus track “Maria,” a response song to the woman who accused Bieber of fathering her child in 2011. The song’s “That ain’t my baby / that ain’t my girl” chorus and a couple of familiar-sounding vocalizations forcefully call to mind “Billie Jean,” driving home the point that Bieber isn’t trying to emulate Timberlake so much as the man who Timberlake—and countless others before him—was emulating. And really, Michael Jackson is a more fitting aspiration for the similarly sexless would-be-former teen heartthrob, who’s compared himself to the late King Of Pop (perhaps a bit prematurely) on several occasions and sings in a Jackson-like croon over a sample of “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going” on Believe’s “Die In Your Arms.”
But musical ancestry aside, the influence to which Bieber is most beholden is the current trends in pop music, which means Believe is loaded up with EDM accouterments, seeking a comfortable middle ground where Bieber’s impressively refined pop-R&B croon can rub up on techno blasts and garish dubstep drops (and occasionally grind on some AutoTune, not necessarily because it needs it, but because a certain amount of robo-voice is expected these days). It’s an intersection that’s sometimes exhilarating, occasionally awkward, and always very, very polished—much like the highly regimented life of an impossibly rich and famous 18-year-old forced to forgo or hide certain perks of fame that don’t jibe with his image. Believe isn’t a grown album, but it is a growth album; more importantly, it has a solid hit-to-miss ratio of giddy dance-pop singles.
Bieber sometimes gets lost amid Believe’s more aggressively clubby tracks, for better (the anonymous but instantly catchy “All Around The World,” which sonically approximates teenage hyperactivity to delirious effect) and worse (“Beauty And A Beat,” which sounds like Bieber is struggling to keep up with an endless series of rises and drops). The ballads are a similarly mixed bag, ranging from the title track’s cheesy-yet-endearing fan love letter, which crescendos to a dramatic, choir-assisted finish, to the just plain cheesy acoustic-guitar-laden schmaltz of “Be Alright.” Believe is most appealing when Bieber either emulates his mentor Usher—on dance-R&B tracks like “Boyfriend” (which remains one of 2012’s best pop singles) or the slinky deluxe-edition track “Out Of Town Girl”—or plays to his basest, and best, pop instincts, like the aforementioned Jackson-aping “Die In Your Arms” or the Diplo-assisted head-rush “Thought Of You.” It’s clear Bieber is still figuring out who he wants to be, both in life and on record, but he has more than enough hands guiding him in both venues to ensure the transition will at least appear and sound seamless.