Artist: Justin Bieber
Released: Feb. 14, 2020
Label: Def Jam
On Friday, Justin Bieber accomplished something that he’d been aiming for since his angelic voice first took a 180-degree detour last decade.
He became an R&B singer.
The Canadian pop king has hinted at the type of music he wanted to make for years. But when he showed the world he could do it, albeit when the world wasn’t as pro-Bieber as it is now, it didn’t pay attention.
The R&Bieber journey, now complete with the release of Bieber’s fifth studio album “Changes,” has been one of trial and error. After the first wave of Bieber fever hit, the singer was seemingly torn on whether he’d follow the standard coming-of-age pop-star route or play around with the genre he was raised on with R&B. It was a decision he found himself making several times over, and each time –– except for once –– he took the safe pop-infused middle ground.
Bieber introduced us to his (first) comeback album “Believe” in 2012, a record featuring soul-influenced tracks “Right Here” and “Love Me Like You Do;” oddities for a pop album during that time. In 2013, he gave us his best project –– until Friday –– with “Journals,” as his proper R&B debut. Tracks like “All That Matters,” “Heartbreaker” and “Swap It Out” (forever and always a gift from the vocal-run gods) showed the Biebs where he belonged, but some PR slip-ups and a lack of promotion left the project in the dust. Bieber then delivered 2015’s “Purpose,” featuring cuts “Trust” and “No Sense,” both of which showed him trying to be taken seriously as an R&B contender, but the project was mainly a product of the EDM-pop train of yesteryear.
After a public, yet quiet, journey toward R&B, Bugatti Biebervelli’s years-long mission is complete, and the name “Bieber” is now synonymous with his genre of choice, meaning his album “Changes” can properly take its place as the crown jewel in his discography.
The record, which Bieber released Friday, opens with the stripped-back “All Around Me,” featuring the first taste of Bieber proving himself as Canadian’s best vocalist in popular music (sorry, Shawn). The vocal runs feel organic and the focus remains on him –– exactly where it should be after a never-ending five-year wait –– and his ode to wife Hailey Bieber shows a maturity in the former hair-flip king.
Tracks two and three, “Habitual” and “Come Around Me,” are sonic day trips from Bieber’s right-hand producer Poo Bear (“What Do You Mean?”), and help listeners realize Bieber isn’t playing around with the “R&B” label. He’s actually doing it and his voice sounds slicker than ever.
We then hear single “Intentions,” the introductory track to, what I like to call, the point where you realize, “Hey Justin, you could’ve done this yourself, man.”
There are only two downsides to the entire record: First and foremost, Billboard No. 2 single “Yummy” should’ve never been a lead single (and almost feels like a strange inclusion in the final tracklist, especially to be included with a Summer Walker remix, too). And secondly, Bieber’s features on here offer almost nothing to the project. Quavo and Kehlani don’t necessarily make or break their respective tracks, but Post Malone, Lil Dicky and Travis Scott surely take away from Bieber’s best moments.
A great verse from Scott would’ve made “Second Emotion” the album’s highlight, but instead Scott comes out the gate sounding like he just left the dentist. The “Forever” leak without Post Malone was, frankly, more enjoyable than the album version. And Dicky’s contribution only makes “Running Over” an automatic skip. But even with the poor choice of friends to share the tracklist with, Bieber still shines on every song.
As for the album’s proper centerpiece, “Available” is exactly what the world needed from a Justin Bieber R&B album. It’s right in his range, touches on his love for his wife (as a song Chance The Rapper could learn from) and Poo Bear lurks on as the Biebs slaps some signature runs on top of it.
The record sees other highlights in a few slow-burners. “Take It Out On Me” and “E.T.A.” prove to be the “Hold Tight” and “All That Matters” of the project, as Bieber’s usual baby-making (not “Baby”-making) anthems fit perfectly within the realm of “Changes.”
As the project wraps up, “That’s What Love Is” reminds fans that Bieber is happy where he is in life. The “ooh-I-love-my-wife” moment of the album actually sounds quite beautiful, with some crisp glimpses of falsetto and touching lyrics throughout. For a first-time listener and major Bieber fan, it’s a goosebump-making machine with some lovely unexpected background vocals consuming the track’s closing half.
All in all, Bieber is back.
But unlike the several other times he’s been “back,” he’s now back where he should be, as an R&B star. And right now, as one of the best in the game.
Brenton Blanchet is the editor-in-chief and can be reached at Brenton.Blanchet@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @BrentonBlanchet.
Brenton J. Blanchet is the 2019-20 editor-in-chief of The Spectrum. His work has appeared in Billboard, Clash Magazine, DJBooth, PopCrush, The Face and more. Ask him about Mariah Carey.