Following up a record like Purpose is no small task. Justin Bieber’s last album housed three consecutive monster #1 singles (“What Do You Mean,” “Sorry” and “Love Yourself”) and 15 other beautifully produced dance-pop and electro-R&B tracks. The album earned Bieber a total of four Grammy nominations including Album and Song of the Year. “Where Are Ü Now,” a joint single with Diplo and Skrillex (credited as Jack Ü) that also appears on Purpose, won Bieber his first Grammy (Best Dance Recording). Purpose was a little over four years ago and since then Justin, as revealed in his Seasons docuseries, has struggled with drug addiction, been diagnosed with Lyme disease, renewed his faith in God, and married Hailey Baldwin (now Bieber). Now, this much change would throw any person off balance, but it’s especially jarring when you’re one of the biggest celebrities of the decade and you’re trying to deliver a new record to follow up what many consider to be your career peak. In this context, Changes, in all of its tedious monotony and in the face of its bloated tracklist, is actually a triumph. On his latest record, Bieber fully commits to the smooth R&B sound that he has hinted it at for his entire career. At its best Changes, is Justin’s commitment to his own comfort and joy, at worst the album is bogged down by sloppy lyricism and production that sometimes mistakes cohesiveness for monotony.
“All Around Me” introduces Changes. It’s not the masterpiece that “Mark My Words” is, but it’s a sexy and mature ode to marital sex that features a sparkly guitar riff, slight reverb, and atmospheric synths. For the most part, the song works as a double metaphor for his relationship with God and Hailey, but with lyrics like “someone beside you when it’s time to lay down” and a recording of a baby crying at the end, it’s clear this track is more about making a baby than praising baby Jesus. Regardless, Justin delivers an excellent vocal performance that features some of his most effortless and beautiful falsetto notes yet. From there, Changes launches into “Habitual,” a smooth trap&b track (as most of the songs on the album are), that suffers because the lyrics don’t make that much sense. Describing your love for someone as “habitual” evokes the idea of begrudgingly loving the person as if it were a chore. Justin tries to twist the word to mean a natural reaction, but it doesn’t quite work. “Our love is habitual” is simply a messy and distracting lyric. Thankfully, Justin gets back on track with “Come Around Me” a slightly more uptempo trap&B track with an insanely catchy melody and a great vocal performance. Is the subject matter overdone and tired? Sure, but Changes was never presented as this groundbreaking avant-garde work. Like many of the songs on the album, “Come Around Me” hits that sweet spot between sexy, silly, and smooth. And it’s much harder to reach that equilibrium than many realize.
Before Changes was released, Bieber offered up three tastes of the album: “Yummy,” “Get Me (feat. Kehlani),” and “Intentions (feat. Quavo).” The former, which I reviewed when it dropped, is still fun and fresh. Nevertheless, having heard other songs on the album (especially “Available,” and to a lesser extent “Come Around Me”), “Yummy” was probably not the strongest choice for the album’s lead single. “Get Me” is easily one the strongest songs on the album; Kehlani adds the extra boost of soul to the track and the pair’s vocal chemistry is immaculate. Finally, “Intentions” is easily the “poppiest” track on Changes. Its bouncy melody is catchy enough, but the song doesn’t really say anything and Quavo’s verse is very dated and forgettable. Travis Scott (“Second Emotion”), Lil Dicky (“Running Over”), and Post Malone and Clever (“Forever”) also guest star on Changes. “Second Emotion” is a fine track, but Travis’ guest verse is so egregiously lazy that it’s almost offensive. He showed more effort on the JACKBOYS record than on this track. “Running Over” is, again, a fine track that would have worked better with literally any other rapper. The second Lil Dicky opens his mouth, the track goes downhill. The least he could have done was adjust his tone to fit the mood of the song. Finally, “Forever,” one of the album’s stronger tracks takes the angle of commitment and marital love over a bouncy trap beat. Justin sounds good and Post adds some interesting melodic flavors to the track, but Clever sounds like the Auto-Tuned yells of a dog being strangled. He actually sounds absolutely awful and almost completely ruins any potential the track had.
The best parts of Changes, however, are when Justin departs from trap&B and shifts to guitar-centric acoustic tracks. “E.T.A.,” Changes,” and “That’s What Love Is,” are easily some of the album’s standout tracks because they break up the ennui of the production and allow more spaces for Justin to provide heavy emotional moments. Changes is by no means a bad album, but it also stops itself from being great for many reasons. It seems that Justin and his collaborators had one main interpretation of R&B and they stuck to that sound for nearly the whole record. Nearly every track features the same bouncy staccato synths in the background, but there is more to trap-influenced R&B than that. On “E.T.A.” and “Changes,” Bieber taps into acoustic R&B, but what about rock-influenced R&B? Or more traditional hip-hop/r&b? If trap&B was to be the main sound on Changes, it should have been executed with the same diversity that dance-pop was on Purpose. Moreover, there is no excuse for how lazy and sloppy some of these lyrics are, especially when Purpose featured some really strong and impressive songwriting moments. Changes is sweet, but Justin is not really saying anything of substance. After a whirlwind few years, Changes‘ existence is a triumph in and of itself, Justin hasn’t lost it; there is clear potential here, and solid foundation for his next record to be even stronger.
Key Tracks: “All Around Me”; “Available”; “Get Me”; “Come Around Me”; “E.T.A”