I wrote about Justin Bieber's surprise charity show at the Danforth Music Hall for Rolling Stone. Obviously, it is an editor's full right to rework writing in a way they feel best serves their audience, but I'm posting my original review 'cos I like it better. And 'cos it was a great night in this weird, changing city.
The humble Canadian is gone. Spurred by the chart successes and cultural resonance of Drake, the Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen, Canadians have cast modesty aside and the national story has become a version of, ‘whoa, we’re finally cool!’ But really, as is often the case, Canada is just late: we’re something of the last frontier for poptimism’s wholesale conquest of the global music industry.
To get a sense of how this musical moment is reverberating beyond big rings and big teams and pop’s biggest players, you have to look below the surface. Like last night: not your average Monday night in Toronto. Justin Bieber, newly Grammy-nominated for his Skrillex and Diplo-produced single “Where Are U Now,” performed at a sold out benefit show in a 1,500 capacity venue on the city’s east side. It was his smallest hometown show in years (though Bieber is in fact from Stratford, Ontario; proceeds from last night's show benefited the Stratford House of Blessing) and comes just three weeks after the release of Purpose, his fourth studio album, which was quickly punted from chart and sales dominance by Adele’s 25.
Bieber appeared nonchalant, even listless, while sauntering across the stage of the Danforth Music Hall. Accompanied by a guitarist, he performed for about 75 minutes wearing a baby pink Supreme toque, hands lodged firmly in the pocket of an oversized grey hoodie, against a backdrop of abstract murals by local street artist Jimmy Chiale. Bieber’s lax energy didn’t match the crowd who perked up noticeably about halfway into the show, when his voice finally warmed up -- though it never seemed to get fully there through the 23 song set.
Later that evening, at another venue downtown, Bieber’s former “hip-hop coach,” Tory Lanez -- a Toronto native -- dangled from the exposed pipes that criss-cross the roof of The Hoxton. In the past year Lanez, who raps like an assassin and sings like he’s Ginuwine, has gained serious traction for the first time in his slow-fomenting career. It was the kind of performance most Toronto rappers have historically been too self-conscious to give -- save for Jazz Cartier, who is also unafraid to dive, bare-chested, into the open hands of a crowd. “That’s for all you singers that need that autotune,” he goaded, understandably gassed off his ability to do it all. Lanez’s pointed lack of restraint and his proclamation that he represents “the New Toronto” is significant at a time when there is pointed interest in what we're doing. His bravado and high-stakes energy stands in stark contrast to Bieber’s rote, almost dispassionate, performance.
Maybe it was the lack of beats that did it: Bieber’s 2015 has been defined by idiosyncratic production. Or maybe it was the fact that this show was a fan-fueled event for a good cause, and therefore lower stakes than an expensive arena tour, but Bieber Unplugged amounted to a decent dress rehearsal that is a kind of intimacy of its own. He started with songs from the new album (“What Do U Mean,” “I’ll Show You” and “Purpose”) before moving into a medley of seasonal tracks including “Christmas Love.” Though Purpose is, at its core, evangelical in both affirming Bieber’s Christianity and his insistence on a redemption narrative, one of the best album cuts is a bitter breakup track called “Love Yourself.” “My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone,” goes the gaslight-y hook. But it’s also an acoustic track, and therefore marked the point in the show when Bieber’s musical momentum matched the setting. He managed to hit the high notes on his best singles, “Baby,” “All That Matters” and “Boyfriend,” but sounded strained and in need of the fullness of backing vocals. The show’s most polarizing and exciting moments came when he covered “Hotline Bling,” The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and Tracy Chapman’s outsider anthem “Fast Car.”
Bieber is clearly going through things and performing an acoustic show that called back to the squeaky-clean sound of his early teen pop era shows a reluctance to loosen his ties to that time. It’s only a surprise given Journals, his excellent 2014 R&B mixtape, was a sonic growth spurt. But the growing pains are getting realer: In the past few months he’s made headlines for scolding overzealous and offbeat fans. Last night when he asked the crowd “What do you want for Christmas?” and they shouted, in near unison, “You!” He appeared to roll his eyes before saying “Well, I just want my two front teeth.” These flashes of annoyance betray the fact that Bieber still straddles two worlds: one where he’s the polite pop star, and another where he’s, well, Tory Lanez.