On Believe’s closing track, “Maria,” a spastic flutter of minor-key melodies and laser-cut synths, Justin Bieber blasts an obsessed fan who comes too close for comfort. “She ain’t my baby,” he yelps. “She ain’t my girl.” If you think that sounds strikingly similar to a song that already exists, you’re right. But by the time “Billie Jean” came out, on 1982’s Thriller, Michael Jackson was 24 years old and five albums deep into a solo career. Bieber’s cautionary stalker tale (unequivocally directed at Mariah Yeater, the woman who brought a paternity claim against him last year) seems weirdly premature.
Believe is only the 18-year-old’s second full-length album (a fact that’s hard to, er, believe, given the singer’s cultural ubiquity), and it’s an awkward coming-of-age document. Vocally and stylistically, Bieber broke out as the missing link between Paul Anka and Usher, a prepubescent heartthrob who fused soda-shop bubblegum and sleek 21st-century R&B in wide-eyed songs that erred on the clean side of a 14A rating. On Believe, he struggles to find his vocal range—most tracks have enough Auto-Tune to make T-Pain blush—and, somewhat ungracefully, embraces his sex drive. “We could take it slow,” he reassures his “little lady” over an Enrique Iglesias–worthy Spanish-guitar riff on “Take You.” The Casanova act feels odd, but it makes sense—Bieber’s a normal teenage dude, after all.
More problematic, though, are the uneven productions: At their best, as on “Die in Your Arms,” and “Boyfriend,” they hit a modern-retro sweet spot—Jackson 5 soul with a whiff of dancehall, and hollow electronica with a jolt of acoustic guitar, respectively. At their worst, they’re ham-fisted, tone-deaf muddles, from the mawkish Alanis-lite pop of “Fall” to the bargain-basement Neptunes ripoff “Out of Town Girl.” Chalk this one up to growing pains, and pray for an early-adulthood comeback.
Playlist picks: “Boyfriend,” “Die in Your Arms”