Justin Bieber is one of the few artists who is truly and wholly critic-proof. The young pop sensation’s new album Believe can be picked apart ruthlessly by the grownups, but he’s still going to sell millions of copies to the oft-screaming, sometimes terrifyingly dedicated Beliebers. Criticism seems futile, and yet critics press on. Because try as one might to be contemptuous — or even ambivalent — about J-Biebz, there’s an undeniable sense of intrigue that shrouds the swoopy-haired star and his unconventional origin story.

Justin Bieber

Island Records

Discovered on YouTube at the age of 13 and bypassing the more traditional, sell-your-soul-to-Disney route of most of his contemporaries, Canadian-bred Bieber inexplicably became an insta-success, reaching top-of-the-pop status with astounding speed. He was 16 when his very first concert tour managed to sell out Madison Square Garden. That just doesn’t happen.

And yet, Bieber has only continued to defy most people’s expectations, becoming a chart-topping, multi-platinum, multi-award winning singer-songwriter and, er, this was all before the dude became legal. And so the question remained: Could Bieber make the transition between teeny-bop goo and and a more mature, broader-reaching music career? Believe is his attempt, and though it strives for reinvention, it doesn’t quite get there.

It’s a transition faced by most teen artists, and there are only a few success stories. Britney Spears traded in her pigtails and “Oh baby, baby”-s for red leather and an unapologetic, saucy image (“It’s Britney, bitch”). And a certain other Justin left soupy boy band glory for a sexy, soulful solo career.

Believe is no FutureSex/LoveSounds, despite all of the Justin-goes-Justin dialogue sparked when lead single “Boyfriend” first dropped. Bizarre whisper-rapping aside, “Boyfriend” is a formidable display of Bieber’s evolving vocal abilities. His creamy falsetto is more developed, more soulful than the bouncy, small-range vocals of “Baby.” “Catching Feelings,” “Fall” and the doo-woppy “Die In Your Arms” also allow Bieber to get his R&B on, and that’s really the direction he should be headed in. The smooth vibrations of his falsetto and his rounded-out deep register are perfectly suited for more soul and motown tracks.

The album’s many juiced-up, electro-pop dance numbers, on the other hand, are a feeble attempt at reintroducing Bieber anew. The over-processed vocals of “All Around the World,” dub-laden, clap-track-backed “As Long as You Love Me,” and dissonant sounds of “She Don’t Like the Lights” just don’t work. For one, they’re just more examples of today’s vapid, oontz-oontz Top 40 pop. Secondly, this kid can sing, but you don’t always get to hear so on the album’s uptempos. Even though his voice has matured, it’s still light and silky — not the kind of huge, chest-voice-heavy vocals of Katy Perry or Nate Ruess. He’s a crooner, not a belter, and he ends up drowned out by the larger-than-life club beats and electro-noise of Believe’s most radio-ready numbers.

This album was supposed to be the Justin Bieber album that 18-and-over folks could listen to without secrecy or shame, but throwing in some club noise and auto-tune doesn’t change the fact that he’s still a poster child for innocence and young, sappy romance, with dumb lyrics like “Your love is like a rollercoaster / The way that you take my breath away” and “They say we’re too young for love / But I’m catching feelings, catching feelings.”

Believe is a display of Justin Bieber doing what Justin Bieber does best: sugary pop that’ll get stuck in your head but never makes you think too hard. And if you let your inner-tween take over, it’s possible that you won’t only enjoy Believe, but actually fall in love. Even at its sappiest, there’s an alluring charm to Bieber’s music.

It’s hard to believe we’ll get anything more from him, but Bieber’s real musical talent has the potential for greatness even the grownups can indulge in, and there’s still hope for that second coming of Timberlake somewhere down the line. Unfortunately, Believe only hints ever so subtly at growth and freshness. Swag and sap, however, are bountiful.

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