What is Justin Bieber's purpose?

The pop megastar is only 22, so he has time to figure it out. One thing was clear, though, Thursday night at Royal Farms Arena: It's not performing.


At least it's not performing with the vigor and engagement required of an arena headliner. For roughly 90 minutes, Bieber — oscillating between looks of boredom and stoicism — performed a set that leaned heavily on November's "Purpose," a trendy and well-produced pivot toward accessible electronic dance music and woozy, rap-influenced R&B.

It played well to the crowd, which filled the arena with screams that nearly drowned the Ontario-born singer out. The audience was mainly women, evidenced by the men's second-floor bathrooms being redesignated female. Bieber enthralled them, evoking shrieks for even his most rigid, uninspired dancing and sloppy guitar playing.

After a year that saw a proposal for a new $450 million arena in the Inner Harbor, Baltimore's stalwart -- Royal Farms Arena, established in 1962 -- has

This is the conundrum that is Justin Bieber in concert: He is simply not an exceptional performer. He cannot dance with the fluidity of his former swag coach Usher, and his strained singing would not turn any chairs on "The Voice." Even the dramatic drum solo, with the kit emerging from the floor, fell flat because Bieber's level of playing can be seen at instrument shops around the world at any given moment.

Yet the cheers still rained from the rafters, from the opening notes of "Mark My Words" to the finale "Sorry."

Bieber is proof the true power is in the songs themselves, and he has released some undeniable gems in recent years. "Where Are U Now," which came early in the night, essentially restarted Bieber's career, thanks to immaculate EDM-pop production from Skrillex and Diplo. The lush "What Do You Mean?" follows a similar formula, making you wonder if he should just ask questions rather than offer any answers. "Love Yourself," another highlight, is a clever kiss-off that earned the night's biggest sing-along.

For a guy known for making headlines for entitled, bratty behavior, he has hits, and their lasting allure was clear.

The songs – and their flashy, of-the-moment production – did most of the heavy lifting, but Bieber's lack of effort still felt egregious. The sloping set design, impressive light show and acrobatic dancers did their best to deflect the obvious, but Bieber and his apathetic pout were impossible to ignore.

He did himself no favors. Bieber mentioned the city once by name, and only in passing ("Come on, Baltimore," he said as his prerecorded vocals played over the speakers). His DJ and Baltimore native Tay James did his best to provide the banter Bieber didn't.

Worse was Bieber's costume change into a kilt and Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt. For an artist who openly appreciates — and arguably appropriates for profit and credibility — hip-hop, it felt gross that Bieber had no words about Freddie Gray or Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. Or anyone not named Justin Bieber. Activism is no requirement of an artist, but the sartorial choice felt crass without comment.

The night's most telling moment came right before "Love Yourself," when Bieber — seated on a plush loveseat with an acoustic guitar — performed Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car." In the midst of the show, it felt like a genuine surprise, but now, it seems like a cry for help from an artist uninterested in performing, night in and night out.

"I want a ticket to anywhere / Maybe we make a deal / Maybe together we can get somewhere / Anyplace is better," Bieber sang. Finally, we found common ground.