Justin Bieber is acting his age.
His second full-length album, "Believe" (Island), is not the full-blown, ready-for-the-clubs adult declaration that the single "Boyfriend" would suggest. There is plenty of teen-pop here that would fit easily next to "Baby" or a dozen boy band hits over the past three decades.
The Bieb is 18 and, refreshingly, he sounds like it on "Believe." Sure, sometimes he plays like he's a bit older, but sometimes the little kid comes out, too. "Die in Your Arms," with its retro Jackson Five vibe, is a nod to the pint-size Michael Jackson, while the island-tinged "Catching Feelings" feels like post-"Thriller" Jackson balladry.
That's a lot to balance for anyone, and Bieber gets overwhelmed at times. He hasn't quite mastered EDM as well as his mentor Usher has, and on the up-tempo "Beauty and a Beat," he sounds like he's overtaken by both the rushing synths and guest Nicki Minaj, who delivers yet another killer verse. Biebs fares better on "All Around the World," following closer to the R&B-dance combo that Usher and Rihanna have paved, and knocks the Diplo-produced "Thought of You" out of the park, with a nice mix of sweet and swagger. He gets lost on "Right Here," though, as he tries to match Drake at Drizzy's own laid-back electro-soul game and can't keep up.
Don't worry, Beliebers, that lead won't last. Bieber is a quick study and that's evident here. While it's not clear what kind of artist the adult Bieb will be, "Believe" shows he will stick around until he figures it out.
THE GRADE B
BOTTOM LINE Mining the middle ground between teen life and adulthood