At long last, it is upon us. After weeks and weeks of lyric teases, leaked snippets and other hints, we finally have the full product of Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend,” the lead single from his upcoming album Believe. (Still just his second LP of originals, if you can believe that.) And as we could basically guess from those previews, “Boyfriend” features a far more adult-sounding Bieber—he is 18 now, after all—than on previous hits, with a super-obvious point of comparison in Justin Timberlake’s first couple solo releases. (JT didn’t get there until he was already 21, though, so Justin’s way ahead of the game.)
First and foremost, one second in with the beat and you can tell that it’s a killer. Justin has compared it to the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” due to its stark minimalism—just a handclap and a dying alarm tone at first, eventually accompanied by a pounding bass drum and an acoustic guitar hook, and in the chorus, a twinkly synth line. It’s actually a lot more reminiscent of the Neptunes’ peak-years hits, most obviously ‘N Sync’s “Girlfriend,” the harder-hitting (but still acoustic-friendly) hit that basically laid the groundwork for JT’s solo breakout. It’s edgy without being threatening, sparse without being hookless, and it’s the exact kind of beat The Bieb should be messing with at this point in his career.
Unfortunately, Bieber lacks the discretion that his ex-teen-star predecessor had when it comes to rapping. JT clearly had hip-hop aspirations early on, even performing his own human beatbox breakdown on “Rock Your Body,” but when it came to actual rapping, he had the sense to leave the verses in the hands of professionals like Nelly and The Clipse. Bieber, who has fancied himself a legit rapper for about a year now, decides to take care of business himself on “Boyfriend,” resulting in awkward couplets like “Swag, swag, swag on you / Chilling by the fire while we eatin’ fondue” and “Make you dance, do a spin and a twirl / Voice going crazy on this hook like a whirlwind / Swaggie.”
The Bieb has the charisma and the presence to be a successful rapper someday, but his wordplay and general subject matter (and reliance on “swag” and its derivatives) still leave a lot to be desired, and his verses end up being a real deterrent to fully enjoying “Boyfriend.” He’s much more successful on the song’s pre-chorus, where he works out a much more fitting JT trademarks—the falsetto. You’ll get Justified acid flashbacks as he belts out “I’d like to be everything you want / Hey, girl, let me talk to you,” and you can almost hear the screeches from teens and pre-teens across the globe as they hear Bieber work his uppermost register for the first time. The chorus is far from revelatory, relying on time-trodden “If I was your boyfriend, boy howdy how I’d rock your world” tropes, but it gets the point across, and that irrepressible beat—respect, Mike Posner—does the rest.
The public’s appetite for “Boyfriend”—both for the song itself, and for what it represents in Justin Bieber’s career—was so unbelievably great that it almost doesn’t matter how good the song is. It’s already #1 on iTunes after less than double digit hours of availability, and seems destined to become his biggest crossover hit since “Baby,” if not ever. But while marred by its singer’s insistence on proving himself an MC—oh man, if those first two verses had consisted entirely of Bieber falsetto, game over—”Boyfriend” is still ultimately successful in paving the first few steps of The Bieb’s career path to for-real maturity. We look forward to following him the rest of the way.