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Has Justin Bieber’s R&B Dream Been Deferred by Dismal Sales of ‘Journals’?

Justin Bieber Performs Live At The F1 Closing Party
Nicky Loh, Getty Images

Justin Bieber is the reigning prince of pop music but recently Biebs has taken a turn for the sultry and soulful with his decidedly R&B album, ‘Journals.’ But are Beliebers and R&B fans ready for Justin’s latest incarnation as a slow grinding-crooner?

Comprised of 10 songs from his “Music Mondays” campaign and five new selections, ‘Journals’ was made available exclusively through iTunes from Dec. 23, 2013 to Jan. 2. Billboard reports that estimated sales  over 100,000 in the U.S., however Bieber’s last studio album, ‘Believe,’ sold 374,000 copies in its first week — more than three times his ‘Journals’ numbers.

Before the 19-year-old “officially retired” via Twitter on Christmas Eve last year – his management says this was a joke – he had just wrapped up his #MusicMondays series. From Oct. 7, 2013 through Dec. 9, 2013, he released a new song every week, starting with his track ‘Heartbreaker.’ No one knew what to expect, but the songs’ bluesier feel and absence of bubble gum pop showed Bieber shifting his musical direction.

But will this grown-up Bieber be as marketable as the teeny-bopper version?

“These songs are different. These are my #journals,” the Canadian native tweeted on Oct. 5, 2013, while on the Asian leg of his Believe tour. On the project, Bieber doesn’t shy away from including sexual imagery in his lyrics. He talks about romancing a “nasty” but “fancy” chick who leaves “lipstick on my satin sheets” on ‘Confident.’ He shares his lustful thoughts about a woman’s behind (“that thing is swollen”) on ‘Hold Tight.’ In the video for ‘All That Matters,’ he appears shirtless and leans into a scantily-clad blonde beauty while they kiss.

On ‘Recovery’ and ‘Bad Day’ he’s more intimate with his feelings, as his heart bleeds for a second chance at a relationship that had a bad ending. R. Kelly, Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Future and Chance the Rapper also deliver bars on ‘Journals.’ None of these features have the idolized pop status that Bieber has. But this doesn’t matter as its obvious he calls upon them to help bless the project with urban credibility. The music itself is worth pressing repeat and it’s clear Bieber has collected some mature experiences to share with his fans.

“I don’t think many current fans of R&B are embracing the new Justin Bieber,” says Tom Leo, founder of YouKnowIGotSoul.com. “I think his current fan base is reacting favorably to it, but old fans of R&B still view him as a pop star.”

However, Jamie Wexler, Editor-in-Chief of ThisisRnB.com, disagrees. He believes fans who are open to a wide variety of R&B have embraced his new music. He adds that Bieber’s move into the genre feels natural. “Justin seems to be progressing into a pop/R&B hybrid, similar to Justin Timberlake, since he’s had more personal emotions to share from his own relationships and growth, which naturally fits more into the elements of R&B,” Wexler states.

Before introducing his new sound, Bieber’s image went from squeaky clean to controversial. The average 19-year-old can be on their worst behavior at a college house party and get away with it but Bieber, arguably the most 19-year-old in the world, has seen his growing pains take center stage in the media.

“The media talks a lot about me. They make up a lot of lies and want me to fail but I’m never leaving you, being a Belieber is a lifestyle,” Bieber wrote to his fans on Twitter Christmas Eve — after his now infamous swan song to music. However, the singer is giving the media reason to talk. He infuriated officials in Brazil and Australia for allegedly spray-painting graffiti on public property and outlets have also highlighted Bieber’s “possible” weed-smoking habits. He was also “busted” leaving out of a brothel in Rio de Janeiro.

“Regarding his recent tweeting about his ‘retirement,’ Bieber felt that this was the best way to respond to the latest in a long line of inaccurate or wildly exaggerated media reports about him,” Allison Kaye, GM of Bieber’s management team Scooter Braun Projects, said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.  “He chose to channel his frustration into playing along with this baseless rumor and even used “beloved” to tip off his core fans that it wasn’t real.”

The Grammy-nominated artist also used Twitter to vent his frustrations with his record label’s promotion of ‘Journals’: “wish def jam would work harder on my project labels are shady,” he wrote on Nov. 5. Bieber quickly deleted the tweet. As an entertainer who has sold more than 15 million albums in his short career, perhaps the singles off of ‘Journals’ weren’t propelling sales as he expected.

All 10 have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 for at least one week. However, ‘All That Matters’ and ‘Hold Tight’ were the only two tracks that cracked the top 40, peaking at No. 24 and No. 29, respectively.

“Beliebers should work at my record label good promoting fans,” Bieber also tweeted. He has more than 48,000,000 Twitter followers and countless ride-or-die fan pages. But this was not enough to grant him a strong lead in sales.

Leo thinks the relatively low sales of ‘Journals’ are due to the fact that most of the tracks from the project were available before it released. “I don’t think it was really promoted besides him tweeting it out on Twitter,” he explains. “So unless you follow him, or visit the various pop/R&B blogs that picked it up, you wouldn’t know it was out.”

His concert documentary, ‘Justin Bieber’s Believe,’ which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, also didn’t do as well as his previous one, 2011′s ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.’ ‘Believe’ earned $3.1 million during its opening weekend but pales in comparison to the ‘Never Say Never’ biopic, which raked in $29.5 million in its opening weekend.

At this point, Bieber is caught between the worlds of pop and R&B, and it remains to be seen whether he can bring both together seamlessly. Even though he’s an international star, ‘Journals’ was a risky move considering he created contemporary R&B sounds and expected mainstream love to follow.  His last album, ‘Believe,’ carried soulful sensibilities with records such as ‘Boyfriend,’ but his pop supporters may not be interested in anything too R&B — at least not yet.

Bieber’s hardcore fans will continue to love him no matter what direction he goes, according to Wexler. “It’s not a gimmick to them for him to head toward a more R&B sounding style,” he adds. “R&B as a genre, and it’s icons can actually benefit from these mega pop stars, who may have not started there, but grew into it, especially when they pay proper request to the artists that have influenced them.”

R&B has gone through significant changes in sound since the late 1990s; Bieber seems to be influenced by this evolution. Robin Thicke and Beyonce, whose albums both claimed No. 1 spots on the charts last year, have grown in popularity as they merged other genres into their music. At the same time, Justin Timberlake and Ariana Grande remained in familiar R&B territory and obtained the same feat in 2013, as those mentioned before, showing there may be space for the young singer’s new musical approach.

If Justin Bieber plans to stay on the R&B train, he must be ready for some resistance. Loyal fans of the genre may still see him as a pop artist and old school listeners could be reluctant to support a show in which he sings love-making music. Only time will tell if the global superstar can truly wear the shoes of a sultry, slow-jamming sex symbol and build a fan base loyal to his new style.

His future in R&B can be bright, but he surely needs more true Beliebers to embrace the new Justin.

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