In late 2013, while embroiled in multiple controversies that threatened to upend his squeaky-clean teen image, Justin Bieber released what still stands as the most experimental project of his career.
Journals, a collection of one-off tracks compiled into a 15-song full-length (although never released as an official full-length), leaned into moody R&B to express heartbreak, try out some offbeat songwriting impulses and generally mature Bieber’s sound. (The young pop star embarked upon the lovelorn project after reports of his breakup with then-girlfriend Selena Gomez, though the couple’s official relationship status would be in flux for much of the next half-decade.)
The project remains an outlier in Bieber’s discography: by 2015, he had apologized for his youthful transgressions, tumbled into a pleasurable strain of dance-pop on his comeback album Purpose and become a stadium headliner. Yet Journals remains a cult favorite among fans, and a solid listen for any R&B appreciator, with a 19-year-old Bieber’s deepened voice and keen ear for beats (The Audibles, T-Minus and Maejor Ali all contributed production) buoying highlights like “Heartbreaker,” “Roller Coaster” and “Hold Tight.”
“Yummy,” Bieber’s new single that kicks off what promises to be a busy 2020, makes an unexpected return to the sound of Bieber’s most fascinating detour, even if his world and focus couldn’t be more different than they were six years ago. The Bieber of Journals was scorned, dissatisfied and searching within himself for a sense of forgiveness; the Bieber of “Yummy” is blissfully wed, effortlessly confident and ready to sing about marital sex.
“Rollin’ eyes back in my head, make my toes curl, yeah, yeah,” Bieber asserts as a sumptuous arrangement provided by Poo Bear, Kid Culture and Sasha Sitora glides along, ready to bubble up into a trap beat. Elsewhere, he nods to his jet-setting lifestyle, name-checks his Drew House fashion line and lets his subject (presumably wife Hailey Bieber) know, “I’m elated that you are my lady.” The vibe of personal contentment is encapsulated within the onomatopoeia of the hook: as Bieber tosses out variations of the word “yummy,” he creates a sort of rhythmic cocoon, his syllables unspooling alongside the percussion and emitting the warm, soothing romantic comfort he so clearly feels.
Your opinion of “Yummy” will likely come down to that ultra-relaxed chorus, which is Bieber’s most simple refrain since his “Baby” days a full decade ago. Yet for his part, Bieber sells it as a straight-faced R&B anthem, his silky croon stretching out and ascending into his falsetto (“You got the yum, yum, yum, yum!”) during the final minute. As it always has, Bieber’s voice contains enough nuance and skill to beguile over the course of a straightforward, radio-friendly structure. Ultimately, his vocal talent and commitment to “Yummy” make a song about satisfied attraction as persuasive as it needs to be.
Although Bieber hasn’t released an album in over four years, he’s remained prolific, with high-profile collaborations keeping him a near-constant presence at top 40 during the downtime. Yet nothing in his recent work — not the jaunty dancehall of his Ed Sheeran collaboration “I Don’t Care,” or the tender country-pop of his Dan & Shay team-up “10,000 Hours,” or either of his rap-pop posse cuts with DJ Khaled — hinted at the overdue swivel back to R&B that “Yummy” represents. It will be a little while until fans know whether the song reflects the overall sound of Bieber’s long-awaited next album; is 2020 really the year of R&Bieber? For now, however, Journals diehards have been gifted an unexpected new entry.