The last time Justin Bieber released an album — “Purpose,” in 2015, three lifetimes ago — he was penitent and regretful. Coming on the heels of a few years of public disintegration, he’d been humbled, or wished to appear that way: a handed-the-world boy forced to disavow the person fame had turned him into, singing lissome songs of apology.
He was also, it turned out, a prisoner of that regret. When he went on tour the following year, he dangled above screaming arena crowds in a Lucite box, an actual captive enacting his trauma in real time. He abandoned the tour before it was over, his battery fully drained.
Though this was just five years ago, the ecosystem for a burgeoning pop icon was much different. Nowadays, stars and trends bubble up from the internet on their own terms, and arrive in unexpected shapes. But not that long ago, fame was top-down and claustrophobic, and there was no apparent out. Bieber was damned when he gave in to the system, and damned when he rebelled against it.
So he made the only reasonable decision: disappear. No small thing given that he had lived in the hungry maw of tabloid hysteria and teen-pop obsession since he was around 12 years old. In the last three years, Bieber has released a dozen or so songs total (though sure, one of them was the “Despacito” remix); he hasn’t toured. Pop music never really replaced him, but it absorbed new inputs and kept moving forward.
Even though Bieber had essentially abandoned the limelight, he didn’t get any less famous. With 127 million followers, he is the most popular male musician on Instagram. He is famous at the level of global shorthand, known even to the type of people who pride themselves on ignoring pop culture. And he is, at the moment, the last of a certain kind of white male R&B-adjacent pop star — a mania-inducing hurricane whose power is far greater than the art he makes. That kind of fervor doesn’t fade; it just hibernates.
Which means that the Justin Bieber who’s been inching back into public life in recent months has a waiting audience, even if he’s not terribly interested in courting it. He is now 25, and married, and seemingly as unconcerned with stoking the flames of hyperfame as a constitutionally famous person can be. The ubiquity of his early years has been replaced by something much more temperate. Can you be a superstar, and also in hiding?
That’s what he’s attempting on “Changes,” his sinuous, meditative and largely impressive fifth studio album, and also with “Justin Bieber: Seasons,” a YouTube Originals documentary series devoted to capturing the behind the scenes of his return. In both projects, Bieber is reluctant, quiet even. He can’t control the Bieber-sized reception he is met with whenever he does anything. He is, however, safe in the knowledge that whatever gets poured into the bottle labeled “new Justin Bieber album” will be rapturously consumed by a fandom desperate to have its thirst quenched.
On “Changes,” this is a kind of gift. Since the very beginning of his career, when he was a preteen squealing out covers on YouTube, Bieber has been partial to R&B. It’s where he learned how to shape his syllables, and how to string them together into cleanly contoured squiggles.
He has flirted with making something approaching straight-ahead R&B throughout his career, particularly around 2013, in the “Journals” era. But during his last stretch in the limelight, it seemed like he was abandoning it for of-that-moment EDM-pop, kinetic songs that didn’t ask much of his voice, or him.
On “Changes,” he finally stakes his claim, honing a vocal approach that’s soothing, tender although maybe slightly tentative, a middle ground between comfort and reluctance. It is an effective album, and also a deliberately unflashy one — Bieber is consistent and confident, and also not drawing too much attention to himself.
That modesty is a hallmark of the album’s first single, “Yummy,” a lithe sensual incantation that (despite occasionally ridiculous lyrics) never breaks a sweat. Here is Bieber having it both ways — singing in a flirty whisper, but also never pushing his voice beyond his range.
Bieber’s version of R&B deploys a couple of recurring musical frameworks. There are the bubble beats — the sweet “Intentions,” the chipper and quirky “Running Over,” and others, with their faint echoes of old Rodney Jerkins productions. On songs like these, Bieber is able to prance lightly, his voice a glittery appliqué. And then there are the guitar quasi-ballads — the outstanding, slithery “E.T.A.”, the lightly damp title track, the curiously crooked “That’s What Love Is” — where Bieber sings with pointed intensity.
Taken altogether, “Changes” is a tonally cool R&B album, casual kinfolk to some of the music that’s emerged from the R&B revival of the last couple of years, by artists like Brent Faiyaz and Summer Walker (who appears here on the bonus track, a remix of “Yummy”). The closest antecedent to “Changes” may well be adult-contemporary R&B, which makes sense given that Bieber’s primary songwriting collaborator is Poo Bear, a 41-year-old singer and songwriter who’s released R&B music of his own. In the YouTube series, you see Poo Bear recording guide-vocal demos for various songs and, later, Bieber rerecording them with his own little filigrees.
By choosing to make R&B, and a muted version of that, Bieber is both recusing himself from the centrist pop rat race and aligning himself with a style that’s personal to him, and not always widely embraced. Much like the other big Justin in pop music — Timberlake — Bieber embraces R&B as a totem of good taste and awareness of it as a symbol of cross-racial comfort. But unlike Timberlake, Bieber isn’t working with pioneering sonic architects like Timbaland or the Neptunes, making choices that invite critical approbation. His approach is more mass-market paperback than literary fiction.
But that, too, underscores the reluctance that’s the throughline of this era. Bieber’s desire to avoid scrutiny could be construed as a kind of weakness, but it is also a logical conclusion for someone who, in his teenage years and beyond, was one of the most scrutinized, judged and often derided celebrities in the world. He has been famous for half of his 25 years. The effects are made clear in the 10-episode “Seasons” — in some parts directly, and in others, implicitly.
You notice immediately how small his circle of trust is: his wife, Hailey Baldwin Bieber; his longtime collaborator, Poo Bear; his producer, Josh Gudwin; his manager, Scooter Braun; and a couple of others who work with him closely. He appears to spend a great deal of time with Hailey, whether she’s loitering in the studio while he records, or zipping him into his oxygen chamber to de-stress, or reminding him to take his medications. His whole schedule is set up for soft-padded landings.
Typical superstar stuff, sure. But in the fifth episode of the series, it becomes clear why these dulling routines are so valuable. Bieber describes several years — referred to by some as the “Bugatti Bieber” era, for his public displays of excess — of drug abuse: “I was sipping lean, I was popping pills, I was doing molly, you know, shrooms, everything.” He was no longer in control of his health: “Bro, I was like, dying. My security and stuff were coming into the room at night to check my pulse. Like, people don’t know how serious it got. Like, it was legit crazy scary.”
Two of Bieber’s doctors are interviewed in “Seasons.” And he brings cameras with him into his appointments and to a NAD treatment — an intravenous amino acid therapy that’s used as a holistic detox. But the result doesn’t feel grim or gratuitous; it’s a public service announcement against superstardom. Subsequent episodes focus on his wedding, and it’s hard not to feel your chest unclench just a bit in relief.
Part of fandom is the desire to protect your hero — that’s key to the motivation of the troops of vocal online supporters known as stan armies — although that desire isn’t necessarily predicated on the idea that the superstar is weak. Embattled, yes, but not in need of an internal boost.
But that’s exactly how Bieber is now presenting himself. The first few episodes of “Seasons” are about, loosely, how the sausage gets made. But the subsequent ones are something else altogether — a picture of how the sausage almost doesn’t get made. “It might not seem that hard to some people to just get out of bed in the morning,” Bieber says, head in hand, “but it’s been really hard for me to just get out of my bed, and I know a lot of people feel that same way. So I just also want to say that you’re not alone in that. There’s people that are going through it with you.”
What if Bieber was one of us? In the old top-down model of fame that incubated him, that would have been a laughable proposition, or at minimum, an unbankable one. But his musical and personal realignment feels more in keeping with how stars are built today: an idiosyncratic creative choice, cultivated in earnest and in private, gets picked up on by a faithful audience, sometimes of many millions. When you develop your fame that way, you’re free to say no to the demands created by doing things the old way. In this case, he can croon, hold on to the fans who want to continue to protect him, and hope that the rest of the world isn’t paying him too much mind.