"Believe" is Justin Bieber's fourth release in three years, but it's just his second proper studio album. In that frenzied span of singles, Christmas albums and EPs, he's become a teen-pop titan. Now, at the wizened age of 18, where does he go? And will the squealing masses follow?
Those are the questions posed by "Believe," online and in stores Tuesday. For the most part, it provides the answers. Bieber is maturing, both personally and musically. There's some Casanova cheese happening amid the slickly produced sounds, and much of it seems to riff on current radio trends. But as the album progresses, the unique qualities become more apparent. It's a largely solid pop effort.
He couldn't have made a better decision than releasing "Boyfriend" as the first single. This is an older, effortless Bieber, with a touch of Justin Timberlake swagger. (But we still refuse to accept that eating-fondue-by-the-fire lyric.) The spirit of J.T., in fact, hovers throughout the album, along with mentor Usher and, of course, Michael Jackson, still the blueprint for any male pop singer.
The dance sound currently dominating the charts makes a heavy mark on "Believe," from the dubstep-fueled "Take You" to "Thought of You," which incorporates a beautiful falsetto. (Good luck on that live.) Digitally looped and stretched vocals highlight "As Long as You Love Me," which sets the angst of young love against a full-on club freak-out. It's like NKOTB 2K, with Bieber taking on the Joey McIntyre trill.
"You're beautiful," Bieber coos in what's meant to be a seductive whisper during "All Around the World," one of those instantly addictive tracks that lights a fire under a dance floor. But points are deducted for an unnecessary Ludacris rap. (Was Pitbull too busy singing hooks for the rest of the pop world?)
Things simmer at a midtempo groove during "Catching Feelings," hooked on a chorus of "do-do-do"s; "Die in Your Arms" is a sweet, sunny standout, lifted by a smart sample of Jackson's "We've Got a Good Thing Going." It's almost impossible not to get swept up in the emotion.
Things get bumpy in the final stretches, mostly because the album feels overlong by two or three songs. "Beauty and the Beat" buries Nicki Minaj under a trash heap of Black Eyed Peas buzzes and beeps. It's notable only for a howler of a line in her rap. ("Buns out/Weiner/But I gotta keep an eye out for Selen-er.") Another pairing with an Auto-Tuned Drake is only slightly more tolerable.
"One Love" is not a Bob Marley tribute but a middling electro-pop trifle (not that the former would be better). And the title track is a sentimental ode to fans or Mom (or both) that could double as an "American Idol" coronation tune, complete with gospel chorus and claps. (We'll indulge him the moment.)
The album's most arresting moment is "Maria," a track on the deluxe edition. Bieber takes aim at Mariah Yeater, the woman who accused him of fathering her child and portrays her as little more than a stalker. He calls the tune his "Billie Jean" and, indeed, invokes MJ in some of the vocal arrangement. He's no Jackson -- but even the King of Pop had to start somewhere.
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