I admit: I hated Justin Bieber. No, scratch that. I hated Justin Bieber. His teenybopper voice was as abrasive as a million dildos stuffed up one’s arse and urgh, that hair flick gets me riled up every single time. Why does he have his pants riding below his bum? (Unless you have a cheeky message emblazoned on your underwear or have a quasi-antimaterialistic sentiment to make, just pull your goddamn pants up.) These and many other questions were etched in the deepest recesses of my brain as the world was introduced to Justin Drew Bieber, who went by the YouTube username kidrauhl. In a very short time period, Justin went from singing at talent meets and recording YouTube videos to living it up at Usher’s crib. Oh, and what was up with him repeating “one time” again and again when, well, he only wanted to tell it to you one time?

As Bieber went from One Less Lonely Girl to Baby and Never Let You Go, we kept hearing the same-old tween voice and basic melody but what made his “reign” irritating to me was the legion of female fans that would profess their undying love for the Biebster. Never mind the never-ending stream of high-pitched screams these girls seem capable of doling out for every single Bieber appearance (God bless their pregnancies). It was their “stanning” — obsession over a particular person or character — that poured over social media and seemed to pervade over current technology. Tumblr was full of Bieber stans (as they are called) standing by their blogs as livestreams of Bieber’s televised performances played out, and then capturing these videos before churning out GIFs that would be reblogged to no end. Twitter was where stans would gather to trend hashtags and tweet by the second about their idol. It gets to the point when seeing girls wanting to lose their virginity to Bieber is on the brink of being disturbing. (Read: @mandaswaggie)

Can you really blame other people for throwing shade on him? For an artiste trying so hard to make it in his career, his rabid Beliebers seemed to derail any chance of Bieber turning out into a legitimate artiste worthy of respect by the industry when screaming girls would forever immortalise him as a singer for the teens. I am sure Justin Bieber appreciates his fans, but I find it difficult to respect an artiste when 9-year-olds are saying they “love” JB. When I was 9, I loved Doraemon. It was cute. Bieber? Not so much.

However, as my acquaintances threw as much shade at him as they could possibly conjure up, secretly I hoped that Bieber would grow up to be an artist worthy of the hard work he was putting in. He had a glimmer of a Timberlake: a possibility to shed his clean-cut, wholesome persona for something more rough and cutting-edge. It may imply some form of sexual bravado, but one does not always need to veer on overt sexual references to stay edgy. As his voice broke on a pivotal live performance of Somebody to Love, Bieber’s ability to manifest a change in his public persona suddenly seemed to be possible. Instantly, my hope to see Bieber realise that he was too old to pander to his under-10 fanbase had caught fire. He was growing up, and he had a chance. Bieber could either stay with his loyal fanbase or try to prove his haters wrong – those who had chastised his tween appeal and one-trick, flash-in-the-pan skill.

All that changed when Believe came in the picture.

The album debuted June 18 and is set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart on its first week of release. I dismissed Bieber’s commercial appeal all too quickly until I saw comments on sites and social media on Bieber’s maturity. Maturity. That is never a word one would associate with Justin Drew Bieber. I caved in to leaks, wanting to hear a raw, stripped-down JB gyrating his crotch and nonexistent ass to those 16-year-olds who placed their virginity up on the golden pedestal and whisper to them: “You want my d*ck? Well then, suck it.” (Needless to say, I am exaggerating.)

What I heard shocked me. In “All Around The World”, the first 4 bars of synths is a prelude to the conspiratorial whispers Justin Bieber throws to his girl and, yes, we hear some of that coming-of-age schlong-swinging (You’re crazy girl/crazy girl/don’t control it). Next track “Boyfriend” goes back slightly to that holding-your-arms sweetness I’d rather hear in a Meiko track but that intro, god, that intro, threw me back to Justin Timberlake’s high-pitched, slow come-hither burn on “My Love”. As I went down the tracklist, it seemed that Bieber was not your too-sweet-for-Samba thing anymore: he can hold his own with the dubstep breakdown in “As Long As You Love Me” and the old-school vibes of “Die In Your Arms”. Heck, throw in a Michael Jackson musical reference in “Maria” and I can immediately conjure up a desirable image of Bieber moonwalking down the MTV Music Video Awards stage.

No wailing, no pre-puberty runs, no hair-flicking: Justin Bieber 3.0 had arrived in the building. Sure, he had tracks like Believe and Be Alright that still pander to his Beliebers, but this was a Justin who had accepted that he was growing older and needed a age-appropriate sound: aspirational at first listen, but never too far-reaching. He realised that his fanbase was growing: this would be the first time some of them would have entered a club, smoked some pot, maybe gulped their first vodka shot. They would have gone through heartbreak, rebellion, triumph. They would have been exposed to singers from as kooky as Lana Del Rey to as dope as 2 Chains. It was not just Justin that was growing up; his fans were growing up with him. They wanted to identify with their new lives, but they also did not want to let Justin go. They did not want to be embarrassed worshipping a washed-up idol that defined their teenage years. They wanted to hold on to Justin Bieber in their twenties, thirties, even beyond that.

Am I a Belieber? I cannot identify with a label. Am I a fan? I will not queue up for a JB meet-and-greet or join a stake out if he comes to Singapore, so I cannot compare myself to others who worship him as a personality and a public figure. However, I am comfortable to say that hating on someone is too strong, too childish and too foolish an emotion to carry. I’m 20 for God’s sake; leave the hating to the secondary school kids. Respect is a trait best doled out to those who have risen above adversity and, in his case, a constant barrage of “eww” and “urgh” and “I want to kill that faggot”. For an artist who is re-evaluating his place in the pop industry, re-inventing his sound to appeal to a wider fanbase and re-campaigning for some industry cred, Justin Bieber has earned the respect an artist of his nature can possibly get. It’s like a pat in the back and a silent nod: not the most flashiest displays of approval, but a “hey mate, good job”. Yeah, that’s about right. He did shut me up.

Believe is out in music stores now.