What’s Going On With Justin Bieber’s Music?

Photo: Maya Robinson

What is Justin Bieber doing? is a phrase often associated with his extracurriculars, not with his music. But brothel visits aside, Bieber has actually been hard at work, having spent the past few weeks rolling out tracks meant not for the charts, but for experimenting with new sounds and shooting for redemption in the eyes of dismissive critics. Did he pull off the seemingly impossible? Yes, and no. But mostly yes.

The songs are undeniably unlike the saccharine stuff we’re used to hearing from the Biebs in his previous chart-toppers. Whether you think that’s a good thing, it’s hard for any R&B fan not to appreciate the subtle Craig David sample on “Recovery” — a song that has Justin skillfully speak-singing verses atop an acoustic flutter.

And some critics are into it. About the track “Hold Tight,” Fader writes: “Sounds like he’s trying hard to nail a singing-verging-on-rapping flow, and getting there.” About “Bad Day,” Idolator writes: “The chorus finds Bieber flexing his falsetto, with background whoas to intensify the sense of loss — and then the song fades out leaving you wanting more.” Perhaps gone (for now) are the EDM bangers, the uncomfortable rap features.

But don’t forget the Beliebers! To their credit, they know what they like, and for some of them, this off-brand Justin doesn’t do the trick:

But whether the music itself is catchy, everything else attached with the release of these self-deemed “extra personal” tracks is expertly conceived. They’re being tagged #MusicMonday and are released at midnight each Sunday (depending on your time zone), coming complete with super-stylized cover art (DONDA, much?) and, often, the hashtag #journals — referring to the supposed process by which these songs came about. “They’re very, very personal to what he’s been feeling over the last six months, going through a tough time,” Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun told Billboard, “Justin had this complete body of work that was very different from the stuff he had done in the past — very R&B-driven, personal songs, not necessarily songs that he was thinking of as radio records.” A recent breakup with female pop equivalent Selena Gomez is what Braun is likely referring to, a traumatic event for both of them (and their legions of fans) that they both appear to be milking. Not that teenage heartbreak isn’t heartbreaking, but Bieber’s string of highly emotional (and super-experimental) breakup tracks feel too well-timed to be true.

The singles themselves aren’t meant for an album release — despite being available for purchase on iTunes. That’s confusing, especially when Bieber himself encourages fans to push the the singles to No. 1. And while they often do — “Bad Day” is currently No. 1 on iTunes charts in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands — the highest any #MusicMonday release has yet to hit on the mainstream Billboard 100 charts is No. 13. Although, if it’s all a sonic experiment, Bieber and his team might not mind. His diehard fans, however, seem to be confused as to what Justin’s doing, many of them going so far as to blame his record label for keeping these tracks so under the radar.

It all conveniently leads up to a new feature length documentary, Jon M. Chu’s Believe (that’s right: two documentaries and the kid is only 19), hitting theaters December 25. No doubt the Beliebers will show up in droves, and with critics already feeling these #MusicMonday tracks, is this a stealth comeback for the modern pop era? Is it possibly that Justin has finally found his grown-up voice?

What’s Going On With Justin Bieber’s Music?