*** (out of four)
Few artists inspire the kind of intense passion that surrounds Justin Bieber.
He’s equally the object of total adoration from his enthusiastic young fans and monolithic base of Twitter followers as he is the source of complete frustration from the cranky online masses of Smart Fans of Real Music (a group terrified by nothing quite so much as the idea of teenage girls). The former are understandably drawn to his good looks, compelling backstory and smooth, falsetto-driven R&B, while the latter are understandably concerned that the combination of elements like a young pop star, dubstep and Big Sean might signal the impending musical apocalypse.
Listening to The Biebs' second proper album, “Believe,” it can be hard, at first, to understand either type of obsession. The album seems to be shooting for global dominance mostly through being as inoffensive as possible, which means both that the aforementioned Big Sean song is surprisingly listenable and that the songwriting is often mired in uninspiring lyrical platitudes like “all around the world people want to be loved.” But “Believe” is also Bieber's bid for grown-up credibility, and moves like the minimalist whisper-rap of lead single “Boyfriend” have the heft to attract an older audience more aligned with the R&B and hip-hop worlds Bieber would probably prefer to cater toward.
While the material is too measured to ever be mistaken for the kind of iconic, genre-forwarding stuff that made clear role models Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson transition so smoothly to adult stardom, songs like “Right Here” and “Die in Your Arms” are competent-enough genre nods to keep audiences around for the more unabashed pop moments. And those moments – “Thought of You” and “Beauty and the Beat,” specifically – are pretty great. As corny as Bieber can be (the world will probably be better off if “swaggy” never becomes a real catchphrase), when he puts out songs with this kind of legitimate hit potential he comes across as worthy of some of that often-derided enthusiasm.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic