Picture it: October, 2013. In popular music, it seems like a lifetime ago. Lorde’s “Royals” had just climbed to the top of the charts, introducing American audiences to the New Zealand teen. Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz and Katy Perry’s Prism had just dropped, and lots of Little Monsters were gearing up for Lady Gaga's Artpop. The world was still wondering, when is Beyoncé going to come back and follow up 4?
And, of course, Justin Bieber was being portrayed as a villain.
The fall of 2013 was the conclusion of a troubled year for the young pop superstar: there were allegations of battery, tour bus raids, monkey quarantines and mop bucket urinations. Following the No. 1 debut of Believe — his 2012 album that featured guest spots from Drake, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj — Bieber gradually stumbled from a career high and became attached to controversies of varying consequence. In October 2013, Bieber was accused of physically attacking a DJ in South Korea, and was photographed holding what appeared to be a marijuana joint. He was still two months away from announcing that he was “officially retiring” from music, and three months away from getting arrested on DUI charges.
He was also in the middle of his most ambitious and transformative music project of his career.
On Oct. 7, 2013, the same day that that joint photo made headlines, Bieber released a downbeat new single, “Heartbreaker.” The song was the first in a series that came to be known as “Music Mondays,” a weekly release that would be tied together in a 15-song non-album bundle titled Journals. The music was sad-sack R&B; the lyrics were emotionally bare. Team Bieber was quick to note that Journals was NOT the commercial follow-up to Believe that fans had been waiting for.
“This body of work isn't about the big, international, party dance records, it's about, how am I feeling, what am I going through, and letting the fans know through music exactly where I was and where I am,” Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, told me in a 2013 Billboard interview about Journals. “And like I said, he has the big, international dance records, but he was very insistent that that's not what this body of work is.”
So Journals was a form of catharsis, designed as a mash note to fans and not Bieber’s triumphant return to radio. Looking back, the “big, international dance records” that Bieber had tucked away in his vault could not have worked in late 2013, because public opinion of the singer was so low at the time. Two years ago, Bieber’s personal exploits seemed to demonstrate that he was far from steady, or empathetic; no casual fans were prepared to root for Bieber’s comeback. From a commercial standpoint, Bieber was in a no-win situation, and used Journals as a means of activating his ultra-loyal fan base without even attempting to pull in anyone else.
But the truth is, Bieber’s volatile 2013 run did not hamper his musical skill. Journals is a out-and-out triumph of an R&B record (or pseudo-record, or mixtape, or whatever classification you’d like to give it).
A series of sparse, slinky tunes, Journals is comprised of 15 songs that were released at different times, but the project’s flow is impenetrable, its creative choices impeccable. No one’s suggesting that Bieber should give up on Top 40 and commit to offbeat R&B music, but he did it once and damn, did it sound good.
Take “All That Matters,” for instance: A sharp guitar lick, stuttering drum arrangement and haunting vocal sample serve as the backdrop for a terrific performance from Bieber, who oscillates between cocky rapping to devastated crooning on the track. “Roller Coaster” is one of Bieber’s funkiest tracks to date, a warped disco romp with a legitimately surprising bridge and hook that never slows down. And “PYD,” his five-minute R. Kelly duet in which the Biebs goes toe-to-toe with the genre king? There’s nothing else quite like it in Bieber’s discography.
There are missteps, to be sure: “Backpack” with Lil Wayne is worth keeping stuffed away, and some of the dour songs (“Bad Day” leading into “All Bad”) come across as redundant. Still, one listen of the woozy “Heartbreaker” upon its October 2013 release announced that Bieber was boldly going for something different, at a time when he could have been sitting out instead of making moves. There’s a vision to Journals that is lacking in the dazzling pop mishmash of Believe, and underlying evidence that Bieber was, in the midst of all the B.S., still a deeply gifted singer and songwriter.
When I heard Journals for the first time two years ago, I remember feeling relieved for Bieber. Despite all of his personal woes, there was simply no way a musician this talented was disappearing for good. With Purpose, Bieber has regained his footing, but one could argue that there might not be a Purpose if Bieber had not cried out on Journals two years earlier. Bieber didn’t drop smash hits like “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” in 2013, but he released something just as important to his eventual comeback.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto