Album Review: “Believe”

Grade: B

The day has come: Justin Bieber has competition for the teen heartthrob spotlight.

It was inevitable. It happened to The Jonas Brothers, 98 Degrees and Hanson. This time, it could be happening to the Biebs.

In 2009, the 15-year-old Canadian YouTuber vanquished the Pop World because he had something brand new. He was a homegrown, humble teenager with unbelievably killer pipes. Not to mention the hair swoosh that was a major popular culture focus at the end of the decade. “Bieber Fever” was a unique — almost bizarre — pop culture phenomenon that compelled millions of girls into womanhood.

That story isn’t as unique anymore.

While Bieber was doing his “One Time” dance in the U.S., five U.K. boys were assembled on “The X Factor” under the guidance of Simon Cowell. The boys would later become second British Invasion “One Direction,” named after the uniform direction of their haircuts.

It’s like five Justin Biebers — complete with great hairdos — compiled into one group.

One Direction’s single “What Makes You Beautiful” has sold more than 2 billion U.S. copies and the demographics between the two are almost identical. One Direction’s fans are just as crazy as Bieber’s and there is undoubtedly some overlap. Bieber’s third studio album “Believe” needed to reincarnate the now 18-year-old so that he can stay relevant among newer, even edgier artists.

Almost two years ago, I reviewed Bieber’s film, “Never Say Never.” Though he might not agree, the Bieber of 2012 is completely different musically speaking. Puberty gave a huge blow to Bieber’s vocals leaving his producers to pick up the pieces. His high notes can be squeaky and uncomfortable, while his low notes are disproportionately strong. Like most 18-year-olds, he’s in an awkward stage of growing up.

The awkward lead single “Boyfriend” is not the best representation of the album; as we saw on the Billboard Music Awards, his vocals are bland and the rap is borderline laughable. “Swag, swag, swag. On you.” Uh, no thank you.

Let’s leave the rapping to the professional rappers. Speaking of which, Nicki Minaj, Ludacris and Big Sean all spit beats on “Believe.” Bieber seems most comfortable in “Right Here” with his pal Drake. If his upper range never fully returns, we can expect future albums with tracks like these.

In “Die In Your Arms,” Bieber slows things down – with background help from Michael Jackson’s “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going” — to an R&B rhythm that is a new style for him. This melody allows Bieber to hover in the middle of his range and the result is somehow quite solid.

Though the vocals in “Believe” will not resonate as Bieber’s best, songs like “Fall” and “Take You” prove Justin’s growth is not necessarily a bad thing. “Fall” is a strong ballad that calls for an extra “oomph,” supported by the confidence he has garnered since he began performing. “Take You” is a smooth, laidback track that pinpoints Bieber’s strengths. His voice is strong in new areas and though it’s changing, he and his producers still have punches to pull.

Beliebers know that Bieber is a huge fan of Michael Jackson. Earlier this year, Bieber’s name was “drug through the dirt,” as Justin sings, by Mariah Yeater, who claimed he fathered her child. It was a short-lived controversy but Bieber’s crew saw the potential for a song. “Maria” (aka “Billie Jean 2.0”) is the final track on the deluxe edition. It feels too much like Michael Jackson; almost as if Bieber copied an MJ track and pasted his own words. It’s not original.

So is he the squeaky clean youth in “Catching Feelings” or the controversy-ridden media focus in “Maria?” This contradiction tells us that Bieber isn’t sure who he is, musically or personally. At 18, that’s expected. But that also means he hasn’t secured his future. As for “Believe,” the album does a nice job managing Bieber’s awkward position between child and adult. His Justin Timberlake vibe works for now, but what will happen if his voice changes again? Can he hold his Beliebers down?

Because if not, his fans might go in another “Direction.”