Earlier Thursday, Justin Bieber debuted “Friends,” his first single since “Company,” the final release from his three-time platinum album Purpose. Even though it’s been 21 months, it’s not like the 23-year-old Canadian pop star hasn’t been around. In that span of time, he’s made appearances on Major Lazer’s “Cold Water” and DJ Khaled’s early-summer smash “I’m the One,” and furnished the hook for “Despacito,” the song that may soon become the longest running no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Still, while he has been customarily busy, “Friends” comes after an especially interesting last few months for the Biebs. Earlier this summer Bieber announced that he would be forgoing the last 14 dates on his Purpose World Tour, explaining in a screenshot of a message posted to his Instagram account, “Me taking this time right now is me saying I want to be SUSTAINABLE.. I want my career to be sustainable, but I also want my mind heart and soul to be sustainable. So that I can be the man I want to be, the husband I eventually want to be and the father I want to be.” It was an uncharacteristically reflective and sincere-seeming message from a guy who was once accused of claiming to be disabled to cut the lines at Disneyland. To make things more interesting, around the same time this message was posted, Bieber began popping up in photos alongside Carl Lentz, the former college basketball player turned celebrity minister, who not too long ago performed a baptism ceremony for Bieber in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub. It seemed like the singer had, once again, taken a spiritual turn. And it felt honest. After Bieber announced the release of “Friends” on Monday, it was interesting to wonder if and how Bieber’s turn toward piousness would show through in his music.
Alas, the Earth is round, we live inside the Matrix, and Justin Bieber will always just be Justin Bieber. “Friends” proves as much. Produced by pop stalwart Bloodpop (who also did Bieber’s “Sorry”), with lyrical assists from hot-commodity songwriting duo Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, the new song is 189 seconds of vacuously standard Bieber fare. “I was wonderin’ bout your mama,” he intones in the song’s opening line. “Did she get that job she wanted? / Sold that car that gave her problems? / I’m just curious ’bout her, honest.” As hard as it is to imagine a world where Justin Bieber dated someone whose mom drove a jalopy, it’s even harder to imagine one in which he would care enough to ask about its mechanical issues. On “Friends,” Bieber sounds like he’s going through the motions. Not that “First you’re up, then you’re down and then between” is true poetry, but Bieber is usually more convincing in his recitation of the words and feelings that others have penned for him. “Girl, you wonderin’ why I’ve been callin’? / Like I’ve got ulterior motives,” he howls over Bloodpop’s strobing bass synth, proving that the word “ulterior” need never be in a Justin Bieber song.
It was foolish to think that Bieber had turned a new leaf, at least musically. He’s a person who has shown himself to be given to fads, brazenly embracing trends that don’t exactly qualify as native to people of his white, suburban, Canadian ilk (see this tattoo and these dreads). Still, there was something faintly exciting about imagining what a new, reflective, and spiritual Bieber might sound like. I’m talking choir arrangements (the noncheesy kind), maybe even a piano ballad or two. Many people love Bieber’s music and how fun it is, but I’d venture to say few are in love with it. That doesn’t seem to bother him, though. He’s happy just being friends.