Justice For ‘Journals’: In Defense Of Justin Bieber’s Overlooked 2013 Album

Carl Williott | November 23, 2015 1:04 pm

Much of the response to Justin Bieber‘s new album Purpose has consisted of people with self-described good taste coming to terms with the fact that these songs that they thoroughly enjoy are by a person they could’ve sworn was capable of only teeny bopper, mugging-for-the-camera bullshit. But this mass cultural Bieber epiphany is two years late; his emergence as a purveyor of high-quality pop has been in his Journals all along. That overlooked 2013 album marks the career pivot when the swaggy club-pop cutout on Believe was abandoned, eventually in favor of the over-emotional, wounded star on Purpose.

Review:: Justin Bieber's 'Purpose'

Journals rolled out with a “Music Mondays” campaign in late 2013 which saw the release of 10 singles, culminating with the 15-track album that mostly existed in a purple R&B cream dream. It could’ve used some self-editing, but it marked Bieber’s arrival as an artist who wasn’t afraid to latch onto left-field production that didn’t necessarily fit in with Top 40 radio. Before he was taking a risk and kickstarting the tropical house trend by teaming up with Skrillex, Bieber dove deep into wavy R&B, and along the way enlisted the still-emerging Future and Chance The Rapper. This approach both distanced Bieber from his swoop-haired past and flaunted his (sometimes overwrought) post-puberty vocals.

There are too many slow numbers on Journals, but they’re more effective than the new LP’s flaccid strummers because they’re so atmospheric and unabashedly horny. “Hold Tight,” “All Bad” and “PYD” are racy, restrained jams in the vein of The Weeknd‘s mixtapes (minus the danger), each utilizing the bare minimum in terms of percussion, which was still a daring proposition for a megastar in 2013’s oversaturated molly-pop era. Opener “Heartbreaker” uses subtle vocal warping effects, foreshadowing the vocal processing that captivated listeners on Bieber’s 2015 hits.

When things move out of the bedroom, Journals reveals a healthy musical range. “Roller Coaster” took the disco-pop craze of 2013 and marries it to trap stomps. “Bad Day” and “Swap It Out” flirt with that late ’90s R&B/bling rap sweet spot, while “Confident” and closer “Memphis” (the latter produced by Diplo) channel Timbaland‘s prime with their brittle, syncopated percussion and background yelps.

But where Journals really stands out two years later is the collaborations. It’s one thing to feature Drake, Nicki Minaj and Ludacris on MOR radio bait. It’s quite another thing to enlist R&B creep R. Kelly, alien Lil Wayne for a so-wack-it’s-genius E.T. fanfic buddy cut and a couple mixtape phenoms. Chance The Rapper delivers one of his most playful and straightforward rap verses on “Confident,” while on “What’s Hatnin'” Future Hendrix chirps and croons like he truly believed he wasn’t destined to become one of pop music’s great anti-heroes. But we need to talk about that Weezy joint.

As the “Backpack” narrative goes, Bieber befriends a tiny extraterrestrial, but he sings like he’s trying to bone it. There’s a call-and-response chorus between Bieber and an alien voice, delivered with a straight face. This is LSD-fueled prog space opera shit (theory supported by the song’s blazing guitar solo). And the fact that Bieber went all-in on this idea says more about his off-the-rails existence and circle of yes-men at that time than any piss bucket incident ever could. Despite this prodigious level of absurdity, “Backpack” is kinda dope! There should be a 33 1/3 title dedicated solely to this song, is what I’m saying.

So why didn’t Journals leave a mark if it was marking so much new territory for the star? Well, that statement partly answers it: releasing an album of pop-adjacent sounds is effectively a retreat maneuver. In addition, it was a digital-only release which dropped at the height of our collective Bieber disdain. Oh, and it was overshadowed by a surprise album by one of our generation’s biggest stars that dropped 10 days prior. It just seems like the universe was conspiring against the project.

Which is a shame, because maybe if more people had paid attention to Journals, Bieber wouldn’t have littered Purpose with so many generic “sensitive” moments and half-whispered voiceovers — he already covered all that here. There’s no denying that Journals isn’t as fun as the new album, lacking instant gems like “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean,” but it’s much more of a cohesive statement, an artistic mood piece. Purpose will be remembered as the moment the mainstream accepted Bieber as a respectable pop force, but this intimate 2013 album is what freed him from lowest-common-denominator bubblegum shlock.