Changes was a funny name for an album that rarely seemed to change at all. Conceptually, it made some kind of sense: Justin Bieber’s life had transformed in the four and a half years since Purpose, the blockbuster LP that spawned three #1 hits, infused Bieber’s pop-R&B sound with an EDM undercurrent, and completed his transition from teen idol to full-blown adult pop star. The premise back then was that the wild child known for driving drunk, egging his neighbors, and pissing in a restaurant’s mop bucket had discovered new meaning and direction thanks to God. Having continued down that path for half a decade, the Bieber who dropped Changes in February was now stable, drug-free, and happily married, a union that had apparently turned his life upside down in the best way.
Listeners could not miss Bieber’s enthusiasm for Hailey Baldwin, the supermodel and Hollywood heiress he wed in 2018 just months after rekindling their romance. You’ve heard of “wife guys,” men who rise to fame by posting fawning content of their wives on social media? Changes was the A-list pop album equivalent. Or maybe it was the pop-star version of a similar trope, the youth pastor who can’t stop telling people about his “smokin’ hot wife.” Song after song explored Bieber’s awestruck reverence for his Mrs., chronicling at length their cataclysmic sex life and the way her loving support had become a shield from fame’s unforgiving spotlight. Nearly all of these dispatches from the Bieber homestead were set to vaporous trap beats that gave the album a sense of endless blurry reverie.
Thematic and aesthetic consistency can be virtues, so it’s possible to imagine a version of Changes that made the most of the album’s strengths — namely Bieber’s lithe, powerful vocals, immaculate production that mirrored his lovestruck haze, and a sense of real emotional vulnerability on display. One useful guidepost could have been Kacey Musgraves, who similarly basked in the glow of a new marriage on her world-conquering Golden Hour, setting her stories of love and anxiety to dreamy pop-country arrangements that became the album’s own unique sonic language. But Golden Hour boasted some of the sharpest, most poignant songwriting in recent memory, and Musgraves acknowledged the world beyond her beloved from time to time. Had Changes executed its vision with such nuance and dynamics, maybe I’d be praising it as a vivid and immersive portrait.
Instead, the solipsistic serenades just kept piling up, softly but relentlessly, with minimal variation in mood, tone, and texture. It was like being privy to a steamy makeout session that goes on uncomfortably long while also sloshing around in a puddle of digital soup — a feeling exacerbated by lyrics alternately clunky (“Let’s get it in expeditiously”) and corny (“Heart full of equity, you’re an asset”). Despite some ear-catching hooks — the computer-synth melodies that serve as the spine of “Intentions,” the way “Take It Out On Me” samples dvsn sampling Ginuwine like sultry R&B matryoshki — on balance the flaccid writing and oppressive sameness had a suffocating effect, so that pleas like “Could you be here with me forever, ever, ever?” started to feel like threats toward the listener. And contrary to the boy-II-man arc he was aiming for, Bieber’s borderline-codependent posture made the album feel infantile, a perception reinforced by a lead single called “Yummy.”
By Justin Bieber’s lofty standards, Changes flopped. In the years since Purpose, Bieber’s presence helped Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” top the Hot 100, yet “Yummy” was blocked from its stan-ordained #1 debut by Roddy Ricch’s organically popular “The Box” and was not long for the top 10 after that. The album itself only did about a third of Purpose’s first-week numbers and did not linger near the top of the chart the way so many streaming-powered pop and rap releases do. Bieber had to downgrade his stadium tour to arenas even before coronavirus pushed it back to 2021. But there is clearly some kind of audience for Bieber’s domestic-bliss era because Changes has been a long-tail success in some ways. The “Yummy” video now boasts nearly 500 million views. “Intentions” worked its way to the top 10, hitting #1 at pop radio. And beyond any statistical measure, there’s the fact that Bieber simply will not stop releasing songs about loving his wife.
Even before Changes there was “I Don’t Care,” Bieber’s 2019 electronically infused folk-pop duet with Ed Sheeran about leaving a party to be alone with your significant other. Then came “10,000 Hours,” a collaboration with Dan + Shay, a country duo whose music tends to sound like Christian pop at its most adult-contemporary. “I’d spend 10,000 hours and 10,000 more,” went the chorus, “Oh, if that’s what it takes to learn that sweet heart of yours.” After coronavirus put the world on lockdown, Bieber kept that same vibe going on the retro slow dance “Stuck With U,” a flash #1 hit alongside old friend Ariana Grande that updated Changes for the quarantine era: “Kinda hope we’re here forever/ There’s nobody on these streets/ If you told me that the world’s endin’/ Ain’t no other way that I can spend it.”
Bieber officially launched his “new era” Friday, but rather than pivot from the marital chronicles of Changes, he seems to have doubled down. New single “Holy” matches him with another longtime associate, Chance The Rapper, himself a born-again Christian who has became known for emphatically extolling his wife. This one trades out languid midtempo trap beats for gospel-flavored piano-pop in step with Chance’s own catalog, but its lyrical content remains single-mindedly focused on the glory of matrimony. In particular, this one’s about how Bieber and Chance’s faith influenced them to marry young, which in Bieber’s case was related to a decision to keep the relationship abstinent until marriage: “The way you hold me/ Feels so holy/ On God, runnin’ to the altar like a track star/ Can’t wait another second.”
These guys must be tired of people scoffing at them for this kind of thing, but as someone who shares their faith in Jesus Christ, the God stuff does not bother me. I’m actually glad Christian joy has some kind of a foothold in mainstream music. As ever, I just wish it was being conveyed more artfully. “Holy” is as saccharine as they come, and that’s without accounting for the fake patois that results from Bieber adopting Chance’s melodic tics on the chorus. The song starts out well enough, with a warm, organic feel built around piano chords. Then the beat drops, the brightness becomes blinding, and the whole thing starts to sound like a catalog.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cynicism, indulgence, and self-glorifying hubris will always probably be received as cooler than reverent worship and unbound joy, but tracks like “Ultralight Beam,” the 2016 Kanye West spiritual on which Chance stole the show, have proven that you can be ebullient about your Lord and Savior without descending into hokeyness. Bieber has shown that he can put a stylish twist on MOR sounds. And it’s not like history is bereft of classic songs about appreciating your partner’s love in all its manifold forms. Would it be nice if Bieber broadened his music into other topics now and then, and if he let the playfulness of his recent appearance in Drake and DJ Khaled’s “Popstar” video come to bear on his own music? Certainly! But the problem with his recent output has been one of execution, not content. Being madly in love with your spouse is good; it’s just that the Justin Bieber songs about being madly in love with your spouse are bad.
YoungBoy Never Broke Again has his third #1 album in under a year with Top. Billboard reports that the LP 126,000 equivalent album units, including 19,000 in sales. After Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, Taylor Swift, Hamilton, Lil Baby, and Big Sean comes a #8 debut for Marilyn Manson’s We Are Chaos via 31,000 units and 28,000 in sales. It’s Manson’s 10th top-10 album. Rod Wave and Post Malone round out the top 10.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” holds on to #1 on the Hot 100 for a fourth nonconsecutive week, becoming Cardi’s longest-running #1 hit as a lead artist. After BTS’ “Dynamite” at #2, Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #3, and DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” at #4 comes the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #5, setting a new record this week. Per Billboard, “Blinding Lights” has now spent 28 weeks in the chart’s top 5, breaking out of a tie with the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” to become the longest-running top-5 hit in Hot 100 history. 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” and Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” remain at #6 and #7 respectively, while Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” is back up to #8. Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go” reaches a new #9 peak, and Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin” remix with DaBaby, Tory Lanez, and Lil Wayne falls to #10.
Sam Smith – “Diamonds”
I’ve been wanting Sam Smith to go all-in on club music for years, but I meant club music as euphoric and hard-hitting as “Latch.” This is as toothless as their adult-contemporary fare.
Anitta – “Me Gusta” (Feat. Cardi B & Myke Towers)
This title… it is accurate.
Olivia O’Brien – “Now”
Skip past the infomercial skit up front and get to the music, which expertly weaves bits of dancehall and R&B into gleaming top-40 pop.
Sevyn Streeter – “HMU”
Some seriously brisk, breathy, booming R&B right here. Slaps real hard.
ARASHI – “Whenever You Call” (Prod. Bruno Mars)
Bruno Mars producing for a J-pop boy band? You just knew our guy was not going to whiff on this one.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Marvel reportedly wants Lady Gaga to play X-Men character Emma Frost. [The Independent]
- Gaga also just released a video for “911.” [YouTube]
- Billie Eilish has a new action figure. [Billie Eilish]
- Rihanna’s next Savage X Fenty lingerie show will stream on Amazon Prime 10/2 with performances by Travis Scott, Rosalía, and Bad Bunny. Among those walking the runway will be Bella Hadid, Big Sean, Cara Delevingne, Normani, Lizzo, Demi Moore, Erika Jayne, Paris Hilton, Rico Nasty, and Willow Smith. [Page Six]
- Harry Styles is being eyed to star in Amazon Studios’ adaptation of My Policeman. [Deadline]
- Pentatonix covered Tears For Fears’ “Mad World.” [YouTube]
- Ariana Grande teased a bit of a new song. [Twitter]
- Billie Eilish was a guest on Brian Baumgartner’s oral history of The Office podcast. [Yahoo]
- Lil Nas X is releasing a children’s book called C Is For Country. [Complex]
- BTS did “Dynamite” on America’s Got Talent, proving once again that South Korea’s got talent. [YouTube]
- Shows hosted by DJ Khaled, Becky G, and Will Smith are among the inaugural podcast offerings from Amazon Music. [WSJ]
- Keith Urban and Pink released a video for “One Too Many.” [Facebook]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME