It’s Grammy week in Los Angeles and Justin Bieber is choking back tears in front of 100 people while he thanks manager Scooter Braun for standing by him through his darkest moments. The private event found journalists, record-label employees, and other industry members gathered at Village Studios to hear Bieber’s upcoming album, surrendering their phones to Yondr pouches and eating miniburgers and fish tacos in a giant room upstairs. Before the playback properly began, a parade of Bieber’s past hits, like “Boyfriend,” “Despacito (Remix),” and “Where Are Ü Now,” poured out of the speakers.
Bieber entered after speeches from Braun and Def Jam CEO Paul Rosenberg, who waxed poetic about the 25-year-old’s personal and musical growth. The singer entered the room with a camera crew, hockey stick, and worn-out baseball. He joined a small crew among an excessive number of white couches at the front of the room, including wife Hailey Baldwin, Drew House co-founder Ryan Good (FKA Bieber’s “swag coach”), and Shawn Mendes (for reasons that were never entirely made clear.)
Since the end of his Purpose era, Bieber has not spent much time talking to crowds in person (save for a brief cameo during Ariana Grande’s headlining set at Coachella last year). He has spoken to his fans primarily through Instagram, and was clearly a bit nervous to be so exposed in his Drew House basketball shorts for a room of mostly strangers. Clutching his hockey stick, he spoke at length about his headspace while recording the album: unnamed struggles that should’ve killed him, untrustworthy friends, and how he had felt “hurt by the industry.”
As he began to thank his friends and team, Bieber began to cry profusely. He choked out Braun’s name between heaving sobs and tearfully looked at his wife. He ended the touching moment with a joke about “shooting himself” because he was either so happy or so emotional about the people in his life.
The album also serves as a representation of Bieber’s “growth from a boy to a man,” as he put it. A few years ago, he had a very public breakdown, canceling tour dates and hiding from the world. Now, his priorities have changed. He’s settled down and he seems to be pretty tight with God. The lyrics establish his new life as a grown and loving husband, celebrating his wife and the very concept of love repeatedly. Baldwin heavily influenced the album, with R&Bieber, the self-assigned genre label that sees Bieber returning to the R&B-pop of earlier projects like Journals and Believe, dominating the music. With this new project, he abandons the evangelical EDM of Purpose in favor of trap-soul jams about sex with your model wife.
During the opening ballad, he invited his wife to join him. He held her in his arms while continuing to cry into her neck. As the rest of the heavily R&Bieber album played, the singer talked between songs about the impact of writer Poo Bear and engineer Josh Gudwin on his career. He loosened up as the album wore on, perfectly singing one of the tracks a cappella, doing an “old man voice” to introduce one track, and making fun of himself for crying so much. The mood wasn’t all heavy: During some songs, he started a game of catch with friends and front-row attendees and balanced the ball on the hockey stick. He encouraged the rather-still crowd to “boogie” if they’d like.
Bieber seemed relieved once the playback ended, ready to pursue more nonmusical activities with his wife. “You know what that means,” he said with a literal wink toward the crowd as Hailey covered her face while laughing at his statement. “Things are about to get pretty freaky.” Quickly, they both slipped out.