A decade of i-D covers: Justin Bieber, 2015
Shortly before ascending to the pop stratosphere with his Purpose album, Justin Bieber sat down with i-D to discuss mistakes, the benefits of good management and life with his monkey.
This story originally appeared in i-D's The Here and Now Issue, no. 340, 2015
One evening during the balmy Los Angeles summer, Justin Bieber sloped off to the cinema alone. "I was at this party," he says, supine on a heavily embroidered daybed, scratching his chin as if on the therapist's couch. "I was playing poker and there was a lot going down. I thought, 'I've got to dip'. And right round the corner was [a screening of] Straight Outta Compton and so I thought, 'I'll just go and see this by myself.'"
The checkout assistant started when she registered who was buying the ticket. "I think she was a little nervous, for sure. She was tripping out." Bieber was thrilled with the decision, not just with the restraint he'd shown at leaving the party before it left him, but with his viewing choice too. "It was so good," he says.
Afterwards, the real-time narrative of the film took a grip of him. N.W.A may cut at an oppositional angle to the young pop star's natural controversy allergies when it comes to hit-making. But its central music business story of starry-eyed, blue-collar boys manipulated by charismatic handlers hit a heavy, poignant chord. "That's really how the industry is," he says. The question mark above Bieber's head right now, as he steadies himself for the release of his first adult pop record, is whether or not he can have his Dre moment, translating the work he's put in with his core audience, spread it wide and take it exponentially supernova.
Like Beyoncé, Bieber inked his first major music business contract at 13, effectively excusing him from a school system that he — and she, actually — didn't much like, anyway. Though he goes home to Stratford, Ontario, Canada every Christmas ("even when things were at their craziest, I never missed a year"), Bieber had an early inclination that small-town life was not for him. "It's a pretty dope place, actually. But I can't say I miss it much just because I don't feel like I belong there. Everyone has a routine and does the same thing every day, goes to the same bar and sees the same people. I just can't do that. My imagination and my creativity runs too wild."
We meet in one of the stately, ornate antechambers of the suite on the top floor of the Dorchester Hotel Tom Ford is rumoured to have got married in. Known for some previous teen tantrums, Bieber is initially over-polite, compensating hard for any previously brattish reputation he's earned. When he finds a steadier rhythm, he warms into conversation, becoming increasingly aware that not everyone expects him to conduct a series of apologies for breaking a Disney star's heart, smoking doobies in Amsterdam, having a fracas with Orlando Bloom in Ibiza, failing to get the correct admin to take his new pet monkey to Germany, or however many Victoria's Secret models he's known biblically. Physically, he is a slip of a thing with nothing to him but a swathe of bleached hair swept over his forehead and a face pretty enough to hold a generation's hopes, dreams and emerging sexualities closely against.
He is 21 years old and refers to these public rites of passage often. He was in smart hands throughout. In the years Justin has become one of the ringleader youth superbrands, his manager Scooter Braun has accompanied him, often having to steer the good ship Bieber through stormy waters. Three weeks after this conversation, who knows what conciliatory conversations they will share when Bieber is papped naked on the veranda of a villa in Bora Bora and an open online discourse about the dimensions of his penis breaks the internet for half a day. Braun has played a long game with Bieber, letting him far enough off the reigns to want to come back on his own accord. Astonishingly, six years into his career and with a name recognised across the planet, Justin has only just scored his first US Billboard number one single. Their relationship has become as seamlessly interconnected as Quincy and Michael's or Timberlake and Timbaland's before them. "I don't take a lot of managing, no," he says, before reconsidering. "I did when I went through that… phase, for sure. He took the maddest things and put it in ways that made it seem less bad than it was. You know, that's reality. I was hurting. I was in a pretty bad place."
He was turning into a man.
"Yeah, we all make stupid mistakes and decisions."
Are they stupid? Or just human?
"Yeah, I get it. Yeah."
You could beat yourself up about this stuff forever.
"Yeah, and I don't at this point. I just look at it as a learning experience, for sure."
Under clever management, he bided his time. "Scooter is probably one of the smartest people that I have ever met," he says. "Very, very, very strategic. Always on. Always thinking of more things to do and more things to accomplish. He keeps me driven, for sure. Because the artist always wants to chill. Like, 'I made my money. I just want to chill'. But he figures out ways for me to get excited about what I want."
If he is to stand up to an adult market, the point at which Bieber crosses from man to role model has to be renegotiated. He understands that if he wants to play with the big boys he needs to own his behaviour, to make himself accountable. "The reality is that people are human and people mess up and people go through trials and tribulations. It made me, myself, be more human to people." A biological coincidence helped smooth the transition musically, as his singing voice dropped a pleasing register. An incredibly smart business operator, he is never one to miss a potential demographic spike. "I think it's more relatable now. When I had that young voice it was hard for people to connect. Dudes can listen to it now and say, 'Yeah, I like that new Bieber song'."
Justin has been selected as a point of interest and symbolic figurehead for the new era's fashion kids, decked in Vêtements and Hood By Air. This isn't some kitschy committee process of winking pop irony. He is a sincere musician, who looks great, cutting a silhouette this season that fits comfortably within the health goth endemic. He has that skilfully young styling disposition that can turn wearing a charcoal hoodie, denims and hi-tops into looking like he's adorned in multiple separate Rick Owens pieces. Where one ends and another begins, who knows?
This year, Bieber has bookended the Hood By Air kids musical palette with carefully aggregated ubiquity, first fashioning the thrilling collaboration, Where Are Ü Now?, with their favoured producers, Skrillex and Diplo. More recently, he's scored that special number one moment with his own boxfresh, Pocahontas-vibed pop smash, What Do You Mean?, a song whose positional lyrics come flavoured with something of Michael's Wanna Be Startin' Something up/down, high/low, right/left romantic predicament. Where Are Ü Now earned him his first New York Times vlog. There will be more of this sort of media placement the more comfortable he becomes talking up his game in a language appropriate to prospective new audiences. His adult pop record will arrive with the clear, readable, subliminal message: everyone's invited to the party now. Like his immediate predecessors Miley and Taylor, Justin Bieber is poised at one positive Pitchfork embrace away from major intelligentsia re-evaluation.
Bieber does not come from a starry family. There was nobody to point to off-screen in Stratford as a precursor to his young ambition. Instead, as a kid he was obsessed with Tupac Shakur and Eminem. He can still rap their lyrics verbatim. He dyed his cropped hair white-blond every summer for four straight years from the age of eight. "During soccer season. It was just a thing I did, just like a routine. A couple of my other boys did it with me. 'Oh, Slim Shady's done it? We can now.' I can pull up a picture." He finds one on his iPhone. "Look at this. Me, bleached blond hair as a kid." He looks up and makes eye-contact. "It's so funny Googling myself." He doesn't mean funny ha-ha. But he does at least confirm the old adage. "Blondes do have more fun," he says.
As an analogy for how far his prodigious musical talent has taken him, he notes that when he scored this year's Calvin Klein underwear campaign opposite Lara Stone, he and his dad Jeremy shared a running joke about the booking. "I'll tell you a story," he says, sitting up. "My dad actually, when he was younger, used to go to bars and tell people he was a Calvin Klein model." He'd take his top off to prove it. "So now that I am one, he's like, 'Justin, you're fucking crazy'." Sometimes it even fooled folk. "My dad had a chiselled body back then. He had a crazy body."
Of all the young pop Lotharios that have emerged this decade, in a reframing of the patterns familiar from 70s Rod Stewart and 80s Duran Duran— Harry and Zayn from 1D and the less likely figures of Ed Sheeran and Calvin Harris — Bieber is the most assiduously brand-aware. "Just to have the spot next to Mark Wahlberg is sick, because he's a legend. And I'm the new face of Calvins?" He bypasses the Travis Fimmel and Jamie Dornan years. "I would've never thought that." He says if he is disciplined enough, he can get into peak shape in two weeks flat.
Bieber is aware of how wide-eyed he was when he first entered the industry, an innocence that had to be shed at some juncture to enable his survival within it. "There's a lot that don't make it," he says of teen stars of his ilk. His early meetings were conducted hungrily and without much thought. "There's so many people saying that if you just do this and you just sign here, everything's going to be fine, just don't worry. And you're young and you're like, 'OK, I trust you! You guys are nice to me. And you smile. And I think that you're a good person'. You just don't know their other intentions."
Pop is an inscrutable mistress. One day Harry Styles is odds-on favourite the Robbie Williams of 1D; one smart breakaway manoeuvre from Zayn Malik later and he is its Mark Owen. "As a pop star, people want to try and control you and they want to do it their way. Looking back I'm like, 'Why was I even taking that person's opinion?' They know nothing about what I'm doing." Because ultimately, the only person that knows how Justin Bieber should behave and how a Justin Bieber record should sound, "is me, right?"
2015 is Bieber's turnaround year. "People are really interested because of the transition from boy to man," he notes. "It was tough because I had to really stick to my guns. I was like, 'I'm going to fight it. I'm going to fight what you say, even if you guys are going to stop pushing my project. I would rather not be successful than let you steal this from me'. Finally, I'd pushed for so long and been so consistent — 'It's either this way or it's no way, you let me do this or nothing' — that they let me do what I wanted to do."
The public unfolding of Justin Bieber coincided with the end of his first serious relationship, with the Latina former Disney actress and singer, Selena Gomez. He may have got into a serious relationship too young. "I think so. I think with that relationship… I put so much of myself on the line with her, because I was so distant with everyone else. So it's like, you have the world who's loving you but it's not like they know my heart — they don't know me. So when I found that love I was just like, 'Woah, I want to hold on to this'. And I just put everything into it and in reality there's just no holding back. You're just like, 'This love feels so good'."
Like countless teenage boys before him, his first love hit him hard. "It's like, magical," he says. "There's nothing like it. So I felt that and I just didn't want to let it go. When it was hard, I was just like, 'I want to stick this out'. So it was on again, off again, on again, off again." Great news for US Weekly; less great when you're in the centre of it. "We were working out how to be in a relationship, how to be ourselves, who we were, in the middle of having people judge our relationship through the media. I think that really messed my head up too." For a globally successful teenage brand with sensitivity issues and a habit for Googling himself, it all spelt trouble. "Because then, it's like trust and all this other stuff that starts messing with your mind. You're on the road. And there are beautiful women on the road. And you're just getting yourself into trouble."
At the height of the public fallout of Justin and Selena, I'd interviewed a succession of Bieber's peers and friends, the brand-savvy female counterparts to his story — Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Hailey Baldwin. When Bieber's name came up, it was clear that they all shared a special, sisterly affection for him. "They are literally the sweetest girls," he says. "They have the best hearts. They care about me in the same way that I care about them. When people say mean things about them, I get defensive and when it happens to me they get defensive." Baldwin spelt out that Justin would be back, bigger and better than ever. "Hailey, isn't she just the best, ever?"
These blossoming young stars come from intense, fame-heavy, reality-generation families that see scant division between the monetisable value of their public personas and their private lives. Perhaps there was amid this influential peer group a way for Justin to navigate his way through the murkiness of his ascension with some immediate role models around to look and learn from. "It helped. But I knew this whole time that I was not going to be gone. I knew that I wasn't giving up on my career. In the back of my head, I was telling myself I'm going to be back. And it was all based on people supporting the work that I wanted to do."
Scooter Braun gave his starriest charge the space to grow into his own adulthood. "I just know who I am too much to have you tell me what to do and say and be and so I'm going to stick this out. So it got rough because I was fighting against people. That's not what human nature's about, it's about loving people. But I was unhappy, right? Because I didn't want to fight with anyone. So in that time I was numbing my pain with other stuff."
Bieber says he learned a lot about himself while high. "Of course, dude. You just figure out what you want to be and who you don't want to be. You have all these questions and you start answering these questions." Braun proved a useful figure once again in managing Bieber through his early pot phase. "I mean, honestly, it's just about perception. At the end of the day, there are people who don't think that's good. And if they don't feel that's good then I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable. So I'm not going to put it in their face. You'll never see me smoking. Because that is not who I am. If it's something I do then it's something I do, but it's not who I am and what I want to put on blast for the world to see. Like, who's Snoop Dogg? That's the dude who smokes a lot of weed. That's become his identity almost. And I don't want my identity to be anything but who I am and what my music is portraying me to be."
It was an employee at Scooter Braun's Beverly Hills management suite who first mooted the idea of Bieber getting a Comedy Central Roast earlier this year. "At first I wasn't too sure about it," he says, still looking slightly unsure that it was the right thing to do. "The more I thought about it, the more I was just like, 'Do you know what? I'm not afraid to laugh at myself'." The show turned out to be a piece of positioning genius. Not only would sitting through a catalogue of his routine tabloid offences, maximised for full comedic effect, show that Bieber was now on the other side of his "dark times", but it would also put him on a stage in the immediate vicinity of smart, knowing, funny, canonised members of the US celebrity elite: Will Ferrell, Shaquille O'Neal, Martha Stewart, Kevin Hart, Snoop. They all lined up for a brutal potshot, fully aware that they were simultaneously anointing Justin Bieber with their tacit patronage.
For Bieber, it was literally a case of grin and bear it and reap the rewards later. It hurt. "Of course. As soon as someone said something I was like, 'Oh, fuck.'" But he took it all on the chin, wearing a midnight blue suit with the nice gravitas touch of a black tie, hair slicked back, like a repeat junior offender up before the parole committee. "It was also a cool way for people to understand that I'm over it and that it's in my past and let's laugh about it and not think about it anymore." Bieber is a committed religious man who sees God in everything. Penance felt good.
Once the entertainment fraternity has taken you in its arms, the musical elite is but a heartbeat away. Bieber already had blue-chip collaborative credentials with Drake and Nicki Minaj under his belt. He is alert to who will and won't work with him. "I'm super aware of people and I don't think I would ask someone that I knew wouldn't want to. I've got a good gauge of who I can ask. Usually they do." When he made Where Are Ü Now with Skrillex and Diplo, Bieber says he was touched by a higher power. "I completely see that as being God. I couldn't have asked for a better start to all this stuff, and then the direction that it went in? That was definitely God. Because you never know when you have a hit."
He met Diplo early, "when I was doing my first album. It was a little bit too grown-up. The sound just didn't make sense for what I was doing back then." His new record began three years ago. "I was in a different place and my music was reflecting that. When you're in kind of a dark place you're singing about kind of dark things. I don't know if I'm ever going to release it. I probably will later. But I wanted to come back with hope."
Sessions began in earnest at Rick Rubin's Malibu mansion with a live band earlier this year. The Rubin material has been mostly canned but Bieber went through a useful period of personal release in the one and a half weeks he spent with the guru. "We did a lot of meditating. We prayed together. We got pretty close pretty quick." All the material he's since finished with other collaborators has been sent back to Rick for a last pass and Midas touch-up before release. He liked the mindset Rubin put him in. "He makes people feel valued when they're in his presence, which is really a special quality. I'm working on that right now. When I'm in any situation, I want to make the person feel valued. Really engage with them. It's been hard because there are so many people that always want something. But I'm getting better at it." He says he is now wise to people who have arrived in the studio just for the dollar. "It can't just be about getting your percentage."
Kanye West's involvement clinched the record. "Kanye's the best. He just talks. For so long. And it's so dope. Even when it sounds crazy, I know that I'm listening to how he feels because he always puts things into such a different perspective." He pauses. "He makes you wonder. To get that stamp of approval from him made me feel comfortable with the project." The day after we meet, Bieber will fly to Greece where a specially constructed studio has been arranged for him to apply his last touches to the record while overlooking the sea. "I think we'll be done in about five days."
Justin doesn't regret the monkey episode. "The monkey was a present from a friend of mine," he says. In the upper echelons of Justin Bieber's world, getting a monkey as a present makes perfect sense. I think this was what he meant when he said his imagination was too big for a small-town like Stratford, Ontario.
"It wasn't a weird thing for me. Obviously people looked at it like, 'Why does he have a monkey?' But if you could get a monkey, wouldn't you want a monkey?"
He gives me a "duh" look, as if to say "haven't you seen Marcel in Friends? Haven't you heard of Michael Jackson's Bubbles?" You couldn't love him any more for it.
"Come on! Let's not look at that as a weird thing, that's a pretty cool thing to have. It's a monkey!"
Let's not look at Justin Bieber as a weird thing. He's Bieber!
"Once I had the monkey I just wanted to bring it everywhere. I was like, I'm not going anywhere without the monkey. I went to Germany and they were like, you don't have the right papers. I had brought all the papers that I thought I needed but apparently I didn't have the right ones so they took my monkey. Really, I can see why Michael would like monkeys. I don't see anything wrong with having a monkey. I might get another one." Where is the monkey now? "The monkey is in a zoo in Germany, so it's being cared for. And it's with other monkeys, so it's happy."
Text Paul Flynn
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Grooming Florido Basallo at 901 Salon using Tarte Cosmetics
Photography assistance Lex Kembery, Matthew Healy, Simon Mackinlay
Production Nina Qayyum at Art Partner