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Justin Bieber, performing at the Opera House in Oslo last month. His new album, ???Believe,??? will be released on Tuesday. More Photos »
Just how fast is Justin Bieber allowed to grow up? And how much? Mr. Bieber, the defining teen star of recent years, turned 18 in March and has been in the public eye for almost four years, long enough to begin chafing. His desire to move in the world as an adult is palpable, but the very scale of his celebrity exacts its own sort of toll. Mr. Bieber can be his own man, sure, so long as he continues to belong to everyone else too.
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Mr. Bieber performing on the television show ???Germany???s Next Topmodel,??? in Cologne, this month. More Photos »
As much as Mr. Bieber is pop music’s teen prince, he is also one of its victims. Mr. Bieber is in the difficult position of having a tremendous amount of capital to spend and only a few acceptable ways to spend it. He’s an R&B aspirant trapped in a pop universe, and subject to its whims.
A pop star at his level has fewer options than you’d think. To make an album somehow out of lock step with the sounds of the day, and potentially come off as misdirected — or maybe worse, too forward thinking — would be to risk leaving food on the table. By that measure “Believe” (RBMG/Island) — his second full-length album, which is to be released on Tuesday — is gluttonous, 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.
His first full-length album, “My World 2.0,” was R&B at its core, only occasionally deviating from theme. But the rise of pummeling dance music as a mainstream aesthetic leaves Mr. Bieber, whose voice is sweet but not rickety, in an awkward position. Suddenly he has to find a way to mesh his delicate voice with music that’s designed for subwoofers and Red Bull cravers.
He’s tried this before. Singing the hook of Far East Movement’s dance-rap club anthem “Live My Life,” which was a hit this year, Mr. Bieber sounded bored, stripped of his beloved melisma, his gentleness no match for the song’s relentless synthetic thump.
It’s telling that “All Around the World,” the first song on “Believe,” opens with a synth progression that could have been lifted straight from an Afrojack or Laidback Luke production. And this on a song that features Ludacris. Again, Mr. Bieber is buried in the mix, and it appears the album might get away from him in a swell of concessions.
But that’s followed by “Boyfriend,” the first single, which shifts gears radically, and impressively. Spooky and minimal, it’s Mr. Bieber’s formal coming-out party as an adult: hip-hop buzzword filigree, his dampest sounding vocals and whispered come-ons that most recall the naughty Ying Yang Twins hit “Wait (The Whisper Song).” Erotic and also cheerily na?ve, it was the perfect statement for a young man learning to behave like a grown-up in the public eye, making for one of this year’s most electrifying singles.
Those are, in essence, this album’s poles, the two impulses it needs to reconcile. Sometimes it takes on both at once, like on “As Long As You Love Me,” in effect a dubstep love song, with Mr. Bieber reaching into falsetto at points without losing power, and showing restraint at the chorus, laying out the obstacles that love can overcome: “We could be starving/We could be homeless/We could be broke.”
“Take You” also vacillates between up-tempo R&B and dance music theatrics, rendering Mr. Bieber all but anonymous.
But there are several places on this album where Mr. Bieber strips away that artifice and leans on his instincts, spotlighting his best self. “Believe” is a king-size ballad where he sings unfettered: “There were days when I was just broken, you know/There were nights when I was doubting myself/But you kept my heart from folding.”
That’s matched in intensity by the sun-dappled teen-crush soul of “Catching Feelings” and “Be Alright,” a guitar-driven number that recalls the Tony Rich Project, the underappreciated neo-soul classicist of the mid-1990s.
These are this album’s high points. And while Mr. Bieber and his producers — who include Rodney Jerkins, Adam Messinger and Nasri — largely find ways for him to work within a dance music framework without violating his soul principles, he still sounds more distant and less comfortable in those places.
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