Justin Bieber is back—have you heard? Changes, out today, is the former teen heartthrob’s first album in five years, plus one marriage and one ban from playing shows in China. Better yet: If you prefer to measure time visually, compare Bieber shirtless on the cover of Changes with Bieber shirtless on the cover of Purpose. Look at all the tattoos he’s added to his torso and his new icy haircut. Look at the way his shoulders are slumped over, carrying the weight of marital time and monkeyless adulthood! Changes? More like Changed.
Bieber, who is now 25, may have been through a lot these past five years (just watch his recent YouTube docu-series to see the full gamut), but musically, Changes is a return only in billing. In reality, Bieber has been oddly omnipresent in the time since Purpose, lending his voice to a steady stream of charting singles, including mega hits like the “Despacito” and “Bad Guy” remixes.
Lately, Bieber has developed a knack for providing a melodic flair on other artists’ songs. And Changes is at its best when he’s working in that mode. He teams up with the likes of Quavo, Post Malone, Travis Scott, Lil Dicky, and Kehlani. And though these collaborations more often find him at the center and other artists as the accent, the result is the same: those songs are hits.
When Bieber is with his friends, he utilizes hip-hop beats, sings quicker, and lightens up. Other artists’ verses bounce off his choruses easily, and vice versa. Bieber’s singing is easily recognizable, but he’s also an adept chameleon. When he joins forces with masters of hip-hop-adjacent melody like Quavo and Post Malone, Bieber matches their slippery flow. The best song on the album might be “Running Over,” Bieber’s team-up with the comedic rapper Lil Dicky. The simple “Wee-ooh, wee-ooh, ooh” sound effect Bieber makes with his voice is the sort of sticky, echo-filled note that makes the song hard to forget. And it sets Dicky up to come in with some funny lines to remember (“I got all up on your IG, and was scrollin' down for hours / I got back to 2015 and you started lookin' young so I stopped” or “I'll flirt with you all cleverly / I'll lock you down, Pat Beverley”).
With company, Bieber can make a song feel like a party. “Forever,” which features Post Malone and Clever, and “Intentions,” which features Quavo, bring a festive energy to the love song. Alternatively, on “Get Me,” Bieber and Kehlani each keep their voices low, and turn out a steamy duet. Somehow, the songs that feature multiple artists are some of the album’s most intimate. Pop stars—and rappers in particular—have become more versatile in recent years, seamlessly singing their own choruses and changing up their flow. And yet, Bieber has remained a valuable asset. There’s the cache of his name, and there’s also the silkiness of his voice. A great box can always use a splashy ribbon.
As the gift itself, though, a ribbon can feel a bit… lacking. And that’s where Changes runs into problems. Eleven of the album’s 17 songs are pure, unadulterated Bieber. It’s Bieber, absolutely here for Valentine’s Day, singing “Anything's possible since you made my heart melt.” It’s Bieber, also ready for tax season, singing “Heart full of equity, you're an asset” on “Intentions.” It’s Bieber, breaking out the thesaurus, singing “Let’s get it in expeditiously” (kids, take note: dirty talk is enhanced by a prodigious vocabulary). All of these lines are sweet and delightful and should absolutely be embroidered on a pillow and delivered to his wife Hailey Baldwin or his greatest admirer Billie Eilish, take your pick. But that creativity starts to thin out the more you listen.
On songs like “Changes” and “That’s What Love Is,” Bieber finds a lyric he likes and sings the hell out of it—to the point where the chorus edges out everything else. Irony of ironies, “Changes” is full of stasis. At only two minutes and 15 seconds long, Bieber manages to sing the line “I’m going through changes” 10 times, and the word “change” 16 times in all. On “That’s What Love Is,” he sings some variation on the title—sometimes “true” is thrown in—14 times. And the repetition is only belabored by the form. For a young man, he’s embraced an old form of pop R&B on many of these tracks—slow, glossy, vocals-first. There’s a lot of luxuriating.
In the streaming era, adhering to the traditional album format has quickly become superfluous, especially for pop stars of Justin Bieber’s caliber. Some artists, like DJ Khaled and Ed Sheeran, have adapted to the predominance of singles by styling their albums like Greatest Hits playlists—as Bieber knows, having been featured on those very albums. In five years, or whenever Bieber makes his next ‘return,’ it would be easy (and sensible!) for him to try his hand at something similar. He’s the perfect ribbon to wrap around a number of shiny objects. And he could even appear on the album’s cover, shirtless and changed for the better.
Sure, Justin Bieber has made mistakes. The monkey. The mop bucket. A few historical desecrations along the way. Then he spent all of last year telling us he was sorry. (Though it turns out he didn’t mean sorry so much as… Well, we’ll let him explain.) Now he’s found a better way to make up with the world: by making the best music of his life—and forcing all of us to rethink what we believe (Beliebe?) about him.
Originally Appeared on GQ