What was it Britney once sang? "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman"? Justin Bieber might well have found himself in the same position—with a gender switch, of course—as his second full-length album hits stores while he's still just 18. But if the early reviews for Believe are any indication, he'll be navigating his way through that in-between world just fine.
"Justin's 18 now, legal and, according to Believe, fully lethal," says Rolling Stone in a mostly positive three-star review. "'Swag, swag, swag on you/Chillin' by the fire while we're eating fondue,' he sings on the sinewy electro-pop single 'Boyfriend,' easing the transition from pup to playa in one of the year's more awesome lyrics. On Believe, Biebs' voice has deepened (physically and digitally), the beats are more driving and libidinous, the sonic settings more intense and wide-ranging."
Rolling Stone particularly liked the track "Right Here," where Bieber and guest star Drake "go low-talking Lothario to low-talking Lothario. It's cosmopolitan pop sophistication, designed to make this the Bieber album 18-and-over folks can like without feeling like they're joining NAMBLA."
But can Bieber really deliver for a growing adult audience without alienating the kids his stardom is built on? Is it possible to be sexy enough for young moms and sexless enough for their tween daughters?
Yes, according to the New York Times, which lauds the single "Boyfriend" as "Bieber's formal coming-out party as an adult" and—get this—"erotic and also cheerily naïve." A good combination if a teen star can manage it, right?
The Washington Times says Bieber "straddles the line between boyhood and adulthood like a pro, courting an older audience without completely abandoning the schoolgirls who sustained him in the early days." Comparing him to that other Justin, the paper adds that "Timberlake was willing to play up his sex appeal, though, while the Beibs keeps things PG, crooning about puppy love without a hint of carnality."
Hitfix thinks Believe merits an even more family-friendly rating, saying "the album is G-rated from start to finish, without ever seeming Disney-fied."
But if there are intimations of a more mature sexuality or ribaldry on the album, these are largely the result of having so many hip-hop guest stars on the eollection, the critics suggest.
"It's a welcome shock to hear a Justin Bieber song and wonder if we're allowed to describe it as 'sexy,'" England's Guardian said in a four- (out of five) —star review. "Employing stars such as Nicki Minaj and Drake is a judicious move in the credibility drive. Unlike Bieber, they're proper adults, not an 18-year-old who, if 'Boyfriend' is anything to go by, is hopelessly jejune in his wooing."
But the Associated Press, otherwise high on the album, says "the Nicki Minaj-featured 'Beauty and a Beat' is a wasted collaboration."
Rolling Stone's critic wondered if Minaj doesn't sound downright predatory, setting her sights on the younger star in their duet. "On the Max Martin-produced disco inferno 'Beauty and the Beat,' Nicki Minaj swoops down like a horny hawk: 'Justin Bieber/You know I'm gonna hit 'em with the ether/Buns out, wiener/But I gotta keep an eye out for Selena.'"
A majority of the reviews make comparisons to Justin Timberlake, while noting that the latter star had time to hone his craft in 'N Sync before emerging as a fully fledged solo star—and generally giving Bieber credit for coming as close to that mark as he does.
"It is a very enjoyable, dance-leaning pop record, but it is not the new Justin Timberlake album. And why should it be?" asks Billboard, rhetorically. "Bieber is still just 18 years old and trying to find his musical lane while grappling with an unprecedented amount of media attention. Because his growth in front of the camera has occurred so quickly and steadfastly, his music has been (unfairly) expected to do the same… Believe does not offer any moments of transcendence, nor does it include a 'Cry Me a River.' And that's okay. Justin Bieber may not have crossed over into the fearless stomping grounds of the Timberlakes yet, but he may very well get there someday, and that's all we need to know for now." By now you may have noticed that Billboard's upbeat assessment includes a lot of faint praise—and, as they would say, that's okay.
But what's it sound like? Well, like a lot of things, because, in Entertainment Weekly's laudatory B+ estimation, "It's the rare album that tries to be everything to everyone and largely succeeds."
Hitfix has a similar take on the album's variety but doesn't see that as quite so much of a plus, saying Believe "takes a certain scattershot, cut-and-paste musical approach. It's like that saying about the weather: if you don't like it, stick around for five minutes and it will change. If you don't like it when Bieber delves into electro-clash as he does on 'All Around the World,' then wait a few minutes and he'll be imitating his retro-soul musical heroes on the Motown-inspired 'Die in Your Arms' or taking the listener to church on the title track. Believe is an album for those with short attention spans, i.e., anyone under 21."
Some critics look at the disparity between the album's contrasting dance music and R&B flavors and favor one side. But not always the same one.
The Guardian would prefer to boogie with Bieber. "Surprisingly, EDM stylings such as the juddering bassline of 'As Long as You Love Me' work well with his plaintive and still unmistakably teenage voice… But the lachrymal tween fan base still needs feeding, hence the godawful mawkishness of 'Fall,' with all its guff about angels who forgot to fly."
Agrees another London paper, the Daily Mail: "The slow songs are well sung but it is the beats-driven tracks that are most striking."
The New York Times takes the opposite tack. "He's an R&B aspirant trapped in a pop universe" on an album "full of savvy compromises: between Mr. Bieber's natural gifts and the exigencies of radio; between warm, intimate vocals and music designed for arenas and nightclubs and arena-size nightclubs; between Mr. Bieber's beloved R&B and the dance-oriented pop that's currently in vogue… The rise of pummeling dance music as a mainstream aesthetic leaves Mr. Bieber in an awkward positon. Suddenly he has to find a way to mesh his delicate voice with music that's designed for subwoofers and Red Bull cravers."
Rolling Stone also has cautionary asides along those lines, noting that "his gently sparkling persona can get overwhelmed by all the sonic gear-switching, technological tomfoolery and sweaty come-ons."
If you assumed that grown-up reviewers would not be kind to Bieber, you haven't kept in touch with the general migration of critics from being a community of "rock-ists" to a fraternity of "pop-ists."
But, sure, there are a few holdouts when it comes to Bieber fever.
Says Andy Gill of London's Independent, in a two-star review that breaksg with his countrymen's consensus, "I realize that teen idoldom is hardly the territory to hunt for innovation, but even so, this is a pitifully timid affair. The blandness of the R&B pop-soul arrangements simply throws attention onto the repetitive narrowness of Bieber's delivery."
Hitfix is also relatively unmoved in the end, although placing the blame more on the boilerplate material and surplus of guests than on Bieber himself. "Ludacris, Drake, Nicki Minaj and Big Sean show up, but they add nothing other than their name value… Too many of the songs sound generic, as if they come from the same music factory pumping out every song on the radio today… Every tune is catchy but not particularly memorable. There's nothing on here that comes close to the earworm-ability of 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen (who is not signed to Bieber's manager's label)."
What Hitfix did like was the last track on the deluxe version, "Maria," a song about the disproven paternity allegations against Bieber: "There's a bite to the song that no other material on Believe possesses."
The New York Times also calls "Maria" "the only song on this album where he abandons his familiar vocal caress and still sounds comfortable."
On the other hand, Billboard expresses qualms about the inclusion of "the song that is not about Mariah Yeater, officially—but is definitely about Mariah Yeater," further describing it as "an electronic takedown of an obsessive fan, a mix of 'Billie Jean' and a shot glass of venom. A fascinating piece of pop drama, but why include it on such a positive album?"
Why? Maybe because it's the kind of song that will get the Washington Times to describe it as "the most adult-sounding song of his career, and it proves he can do the grown-up pop-star thing fairly well." And because it'll get fans to shell out a few extra bucks for the extra-provocative deluxe edition that makes all the difference between G and PG.