Justin Bieber's Higher Purpose
By: Erik Philbrook, Editor in Chief, @erikphilbrook • October 19, 2016
When "Where Are Ü Now," Justin Bieber's surprise collaboration with EDM giants Skrillex and Diplo (aka Jack Ü), dropped in February 2015, longtime Bieber fans naturally rejoiced. Legions of other music lovers stopped dancing to it just long enough to ponder "what is this great song?" Thus began a creative and critical comeback for Bieber that shows no signs of stopping. In fact, his comeback gained new fuel in February of this year when Bieber won his first Grammy Award (for Best Dance Recording) for "Where Are Ü Now."
A child music prodigy from Canada who released his debut EP, My World, in 2009 and almost immediately went on to worldwide stardom, Bieber has experienced numerous highs and lows that have come with being in the white hot center of the international spotlight. While he has often gained attention for some of his non-musical exploits, he shifted the focus back to his creative gifts with his new music from the confidently-titled album, Purpose, released in late 2015. The album's first single, "What Do You Mean?," a sly blend of pop, electronic dance music and acoustic soul, became Bieber's first #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also earned him a Guinness World Record as the youngest male artist to debut at the top of that chart.
But that was just the beginning of his new reign atop the Hot 100. "Sorry," the second single debuted at #2 and after eight consecutive weeks, seized the top spot and earned him his second #1 hit. Then, the third single, "Love Yourself," also peaked at #1, making Bieber the first male artist in almost ten years to have three #1s from the same album. In addition to working with Skrillex on six tracks on Purpose, Bieber made other savvy choices in his collaborators, from Poo Bear ("What Do You Mean?") and Ed Sheeran ("Love Yourself") to Big Sean ("No Pressure") and Halsey ("The Feeling"). His new songs tap into a sophisticated sonic palette of luminescent synths, bubbling bass and trippy rhythms and his breathy vocals seduce the listener with cool R&B. It's an evolution in craft that has pleased his longtime followers while turning former skeptics into true fans. As he prepared to hit the road for his Purpose World Tour this summer, Bieber shared his thoughts on his new musical path with Playback.
The songs from your album, Purpose, continue to top the charts and make history. Amidst all of the talk about your "comeback," what about your new music are you most proud of?
I'm just happy that I made music people love this much. I waited a long time to get this music right and I'm happy and proud people are responding to it the way they are.
You took your time and worked hard in crafting your new musical direction before releasing Purpose. Was this a harder process than ever before? And why?
It was definitely harder for my team. In the beginning, I knew more what I didn't want things to sound like than what I wanted and I think that was frustrating for them. For me it was a great outlet and an amazing experience.
You've worked with such incredible collaborators over the years. But you seem to have struck a real vein of creativity with Skrillex, Diplo and some of your other co-writers on Purpose. What contributed to the success of these collaborations?
We're friends. We like each other. We have fun when we work together. I think that makes a big difference. Things flow naturally when you work with your friends.
What's the most ideal way you like to write a song? From scratch? Or do you like to riff off of an idea or a piece of music from a producer or co-writer?
I work the best with [frequent ASCAP co-writer] Poo Bear when it comes to writing. He and I play off each other well. We've spent so much time with each other that he can finish what I've started in my head. We usually start with a conversation of what we want the subject of the song to be and melodies and start writing lyrics from there.
How do you know when you've nailed the track?
I don't. I'm a perfectionist with my music. I could mess with it forever. Sometimes my team has to step in and say 'enough, the music is great and it's ready to go.'
How do you think you've changed the most as a music creator in the past few years?
I've been much more actively engaged in the making of my music this time around. I've grown up. I have a real perspective, voice and point of view and it's reflected in my music.
Before "What Do You Mean?" hit #1 last year, were you concerned about how your new music would be perceived? How did it feel when it went to #1?
Yes I was nervous. It had been a while. There had been a lot of negative press. It felt great to know my fans were still with me.
You showed real emotion at the VMAs after you performed "Where Are Ü Now" and "What Do You Mean?" What was going through your head and heart at the moment?
To be accepted by my peers like that after all I had been through - it was a really surreal and overwhelming moment.
Not every artist achieves such overwhelming fame and notoriety so young. Now that you've survived some of the challenges that that level of attention brings, what are you focused on in your life and career right now?
I just want to keep making and performing incredible music people love.
What do you think about the state of pop music right now? Where would you like to see pop music go in the near future?
I think there's a great fusion of pop, R&B and EDM in music right now - I think it's really represented in my sound . I would love to see things continue to cross genres and evolve into new kinds of pop music.
What music and/or what artists are you loving right now?
I'm very into Post Malone at the moment. I think he's a great guy and makes great music. We're becoming good friends.
With such a full plate these days and so many creative and business decisions to make, what are your guiding principles in this new chapter of your career?
I follow my gut. I try to be the best man I can be. I listen to my team to get other people's perspectives and I try to make decisions I can be proud of.
What do you most looking forward to when you tour?
Getting to see my fans again. I love them and it's been a long time.
With your musical dominance and Justin Trudeau's amazing rise to Prime Minister in your home country, Canada seems to be having another moment. What do you love most about being from Canada, and why does Canada always keep defying expectations (or some would say America's expectations)?
I think people sometimes don't take Canada as seriously as they should. We're nice people. We're not an aggressive country and so people forget we can be innovative and powerful. It makes me feel like an underdog - and I always love to be the underdog and surprise everyone.
Photos by Rory Kramer; Grammy photo by Kevin Mazur