Justin Bieber’s Believe: The Pop Prince Comes of Age

Ludacris, Drake and Nicki Minaj join Bieber on this third—and most mature—studio album. Let the screaming begin

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Justin Bieber doesn’t care what I think of him. The YouTube star turned singing sensation has topped practically every Billboard chart, toured the world, released a 3D movie, plastered his face on ever piece of merchandise imaginable (have you changed the batteries in your Bieber brand electric toothbrush lately?), and scored three No. 1 albums.

And then he turned 18.

He is also undoubtedly one of the most critic-proof artists to ever exist. Which is why his new album Believe,  which drops today, will sell millions and millions of copies no matter what some grown-up says about it. So why fight Bieber fever? In lieu of borrowing a 12-year-old girl—a request that is impossible to make without sounding creepy—I let down my hair, put on some One Less Lonely Glitter nail polish, and got in touch with my inner tween. And then a funny thing happened: I kind of fell in love. Which is pretty much the point of the whole album.

(MORE: See pictures of Justin Bieber)

The 13 tracks on Believe are written precisely to appeal to Bieber’s die-hard fan base of adolescent and tween girls. Every single track is a love song. (It’s worth noting that the album’s bonus track, “Maria,” is very much not a love song, but instead hate mail directed squarely at Mariah Yeater, the woman who falsely accused the teen dream of fathering her child.) “Boyfriend,” the album’s first single, promises that “If I was your boyfriend/I’d never let you go,” lyrics sure to make any teen’s heart go pitter pat. Parents need not fear the Bieb, though. While the songs are all about love and relationships, they are clearly written for the PG-13 set. On “Catching Feelings,” a smooth love song that could easily have been performed by John Legend or even George Michael, the lyrics seem tweaked to reflect his years: “I’m too young for love/but I’m catching feelings.” Even when Drake appears on the R&B-inspired song “Right Here,” he sings about wanting to kiss you and hug you, get to know you—but wait until the time is right. This is not the stuff of which R&B lyrics normally consist, but definitely lets parents sleep more easily at night. But is Bieber simply writing to his audience or are there legitimate teen feelings involved?

Cynics would say, Bieber—or at least the team around him—knows how to sell the teen heartthrob. And Google lists Bieber’s net worth at $112 million, so there is little doubt that his management team knows exactly what they are doing. So when his manager Scooter Braun tells CBS Local that the tear-jerking love song “Fall” was inspired by Nicholas Sparks’ weepy romance A Walk To Remember, are we supposed to believe that Bieber reads Nicholas Sparks novels or that his marketing team wants us to think he reads Nicholas Sparks novels? And are we supposed to buy it when Braun claims that when Bieber was writing the song, he dreamed up a tragic tale of a girl who died from cancer and her friend-turned-boyfriend falling down on his knees at her grave in grief? According to Braun, the imagined scenario was so tragic for the 18-year-old multi-millionaire that it caused him to choke up while singing the final lines of “Fall”: “You can’t fly unless you let yourself fall/ I will catch you if you fall.” Cynics would see right through that, but the believers, well, they want to believe. They don’t call them Beliebers for nothing.

That said, there is no doubt that Believe will be a blockbuster. The album’s first single, “Boyfriend,” was Bieber’s fastest-selling hit by far, topping 2 million in digital sales in just nine weeks. (By contrast, “Baby” took 20 weeks to top the 2 million mark in June 2010, and “One Time” took more than 13 months to top the 2 million mark in August 2010.) The tracks on Believe are a true evolution from “Baby,” the bubble gum pop song that was Bieber’s first smash hit. The songs are sleeker, savvier and even sexier (don’t worry, he’s legal) and show that Bieber, now 18, is maturing. Not only age-wise, but as a musician, and, in fact, he may be in the middle of some musical growing pains. When “Baby” came out, Bieber was still an upstart, but now he is a star and his album has a lot riding on it. To wit, his team infused the album with all the slick production values that money can buy, bringing in producers like Diplo, The Messengers, Rodney Jerkins, Hit-Boy, Max Martin and Bei Maejor to glitz up the songs, of which all but one were co-written by Bieber.

(MOREJustin Bieber Racks Up More Than 2 Billion Views on YouTube)

Perhaps working with that many producers can account for some of the albums genre-hopping style. Believe has Bieber performing everything from the R&B smooth jazz-pop number “Catching Feelings” to the hip-hop-inflected dance track “Beauty and the Beat” to the seemingly Skrillex-inspired song “As Long As You Love Me.” The fact that the album covers such vast stylistic ground reveals something that we all already know: Bieber is just a teenager. If you keep that in mind, it’s less surprising when he namechecks Buzz Lightyear while singing about being a boyfriend who would never let you go or when his voice almost cracks as he reaches the upper echelons of his register when he sings “As long as you laaaaallalalalalala love me.”

In some ways, the album is the musical equivalent of a one-man stage show of The Breakfast Club with Bieber alone playing the jock, the loner and the princess all set to a club beat and produced by Baby Face. That’s not a bad thing—it just shows that Bieber, like most teens, is still trying to find himself. His self-discovery just happens to be very public and poised to sell millions of copies. The album isn’t cohesive, but is peppered with enough stand out tracks such as “All Around the World” and “Take Care” that the album is fun to listen to and hit singles are a sure thing. And every album needs a b-side, even in the digital age when most Bieber fans have no idea what “b-side” refers to.

(More on TIME.com: See how a mom learned to love Justin Bieber)

Despite the millions of dollars poured into this album, the song lyrics aren’t brilliant. On one track Bieber rhymes tonight, knife, and night during the chorus. You would expect that some of the money spent on this album could have bought a rhyming dictionary, but perhaps they blew the budget on guest stars. The album has some doozies, with everyone from Drake to Big Sean to Ludacris popping up on the tracks. The big names make a splash, and offer lackadaisical listeners a welcome break from Bieber’s high-pitched wails. Occasionally, though, Bieber is shown up by his guests. In “Beauty and the Beat,” a slightly silly fast-paced electro pop song, Nicki Minaj magically rhymes “Selener” and “weiner” in such an upbeat and fun contribution that it makes you want to stop listening to Justin Bieber and just play a Nicki Minaj song.

“I want to be remembered,” Bieber declared during his sit down on the Today Show last week. That seems like a sure thing for the young star and this album will help him get there. Believe is a solid addition to his discography, because, despite its shortfalls, it is an album full of potential. The tracks that are good are very very good pop songs. As Bieber gets older and gets more comfortable as a musician and settles into a style that works for him, there is little doubt that he will make incredible music. Or he can just retire to an island and roll around in his money. Or his own bed sheets.

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