Justin Bieber is 21. He’s been “with” us seven years now. That’s a third of his life, and it’s a period of time that has seemed to drag out even longer than that for those of us who’ve covered this Canadian idol’s music.
Until fairly recently, it looked as though Bieber’s celebrified existence would continue to follow the same sad, tired, mindless and soulless trajectory we’ve seen so many times before: squeaky-clean, earnest, Jesus-espousing teen phenom plunges into a black hole that’s dirty, cynical and devoid of spiritual vitality as carnal excess becomes the norm.
But it seems with the release of Purpose that maybe, just maybe, Bieber’s genuinely interested in rethinking that clichéd ending. On his fourth studio album, there’s some evidence that Justin Bieber is at least trying to grow up—even if he’d be the first to say (and we’d have to agree) that he’s not all the way there yet.
The title track thanks God for giving Justin purpose. He sings, “I put my heart into Your hands/Here’s my soul to keep/I let You in with all that I can/You’re not hard to reach/And You’ve blessed me with the best gift/That I’ve ever known/You’ve given me purpose.” A lengthy voiceover at the end of the track adds, “If you don’t give it all you got, you’re only cheating yourself. Give it all you got. … That’s what’s happening with me. It’s like, God, I’m giving it all I got. Sometimes I’m weak and I’m gonna do it, and it’s like I’m not giving myself grace, I’m just, like, understanding, that’s just how it is.”
Similarly God-focused thoughts turn up in a voiceover at the end of the Deluxe Edition bonus track “All in It,” as Bieber reflects on trusting God to fill him up inside. “I always felt like I had to be the best at everything,” he notes. “Because I, I just didn’t think I was good enough. And maybe if I was good at something, that, that I’d get recognition from that. But I quickly found that I wasn’t going to get the recognition that I wanted or that I needed, because people aren’t perfect. And, not being perfect, you, you sometimes can disappoint people. And with God, it’s like He’s perfect and He never disappoints. So I just get my recognition from Him. And give Him recognition.”
“Children” advocates for making the world a better place for its youngest residents. “What about the children?” Bieber asks. “Look at all the children we can change/ … Whose heart is the biggest?/Wear it on your sleeve/That we can make a difference.” “I’ll Show You” offers an autobiographical glimpse into the difficulty of growing up in the public eye. “My life is a movie and everyone’s watching,” Bieber begins before admitting, “Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing/ … It’s like they want me to be perfect/When they don’t even know that I’m hurting/ … Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real.” He also admits, “I gotta learn things, learn them the hard way.”
Turning his attention, inevitably, toward romance, Justin still includes God on “Where Are Ü Now,” which talks about caring and praying for an ex who didn’t return the favor (“When you broke down I didn’t leave you/ … I was on my knees when nobody else was praying, oh Lord”). “Sorry” tells us, “I know you know that I made those mistakes once or twice/ … Maybe a couple a hundred times,” then pleads, “So let me, oh, let me/Redeem, oh, redeem myself tonight.” Justin adds, “I just need one more shot at forgiveness.”
“No Pressure” likewise invites an ex back into relationship, but insists, “I don’t wanna add to your pain at all/I’m praying that time makes a change in your life/ … Talking to my conscience/I made a few mistakes/I did it to myself/I’m the only one to blame/I know you need a little while to believe again/To love again.” On “Mark My Words,” Bieber promises to “give you all I got,” and he says, “I don’t wanna live a lie.” Then he promises to let his actions speak louder than his words (“After all that we’ve been through/I’ma show you more than I could ever say”).
“Company” looks forward to getting to know someone attractive, but also sets some healthy boundaries for doing so (“You ain’t gotta be my lover for you to call me baby/ … Just wanna have a conversation”). “The Feeling” is a surprisingly self-aware and self-critical song in which Bieber recognizes his penchant for confusing outer beauty with inner substance (“I’m notorious for thinking you’re full of beautiful/Instead of hollow”). He also wisely asks (with an assist from singer Halsey), “Am I in love with you? Or am I in love with the feeling?”
Several tracks reference sexual relationships. “What Do You Mean?” includes the repeated line, “Wanna argue all day, make love all night.” “Sorry” implies that a physical connection was part of a previous relationship (“I’m not just trying to get you back on me/’Cause I’m missing more than just your body”). “No Sense” talks about sharing a bed with a woman (“And I won’t sleep the same unless you’re waking up in there with me/ … All I wanna do is you/ … Yeah, slow down, stay up, stay up, stay up”).
Guest Big Sean raps on “No Pressure,” “But it’s a waste of time if your waist ain’t on mine.” He also quips, “You heard I’m playin’ with the hoes like I golf, right?” Justin adds a couple of lines that almost have to be heard in a sexual context (“Put my key in the ignition/Don’t rush it, girl, just stretch it out for me/I know that you ain’t got no place to leave”).
It’s clear from some of Justin Bieber’s previous music and from numerous tabloid tales over the last few years that he’s more than dabbled with some pretty dark stuff. In a recent Billboard cover story, he admitted as much: “I was close to letting [fame] destroy me.”
But just saying I was close … implies that he’s now at least trying to go a different way. Lead a cleaner life. Walk a straighter path. Purpose, like Justin, isn’t perfect. There’s suggestive content on it that clearly implies love and sex are still intertwined for Justin. And that’s not easily squared with his renewed proclamations about his faith. But in another recent interview with Complex magazine, Bieber talked at length about how the two subjects smashed together in his life:
“I moved in with my girlfriend when I was 18. Started my own life with her. It was a marriage kind of thing. Living with a girl, it was just too much at that age. But we were so in love. Nothing else mattered. We were all about each other. But when it’s like that and you get your value from that, people will always disappoint you. … Your full identity can’t be in that person. My identity was in her. Her identity was in me. When stuff would happen, I would lose my freakin’ mind, and she would lose her mind, and we would fight so hard because we were so invested in each other. Love is a choice. Love is not a feeling. People have made it seem in movies that it’s this fairy tale. That’s not what love is. You’re not gonna want to love your girl sometimes but you’re gonna choose to love her. That’s something in life that I had to figure out. I can’t lean on people. I got to lean on God. I gotta trust in him through all my situations. Then, hopefully, my other relationships will flourish around me.”
Justin Bieber is obviously still working through some deep questions about intimacy—with women and with God. And that’s reflected in both his conversations and his music. Give him credit for real growth, but realize that there are still significant rough edges. I’ll end this review with one of them:
The sensual, suggestive, sleazy, some might even say criminal video for “What Do You Mean?” illustrates just how difficult it is for someone like Justin Bieber to extract himself—even if he might sometimes want to—from the sexualized entertainment industry he’s still very much at the heart of.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.