It's easy to underestimate Justin Bieber. Check out the videos for the teen singer's two hit singles the bouncy puppy-love anthems ''One Time'' and ''One Less Lonely Girl'' and you'll see a dewy kid who looks more like a life-size Tiger Beat pullout than a legit musician. But the 15-year-old's growing fan base including Usher, who signed him to a record deal last year insists he's the real deal, a music prodigy whose debut album, My World (out Nov. 17), could add one more Justin to the pop-music A list.
After seeing Bieber in action, it's hard to argue with them. Over the course of a video promo shoot on a recent evening, the singer belts out three pitch-perfect takes of a track off his album, accompanying himself on piano. In between setups, he unwinds by busting out Usher-style dance moves and improvising blues riffs on guitar. (Later, he solves a Rubik's cube in 90 seconds flat, but that's beside the point.) The display is undeniably impressive not to mention exhausting. ''Remember when you were 15?'' Bieber asks with a smart-aleck grin. ''You had a lot of energy.''
To his friends and family, Bieber's musical gifts were obvious early on. ''When he was 5, he'd hear something on the radio and go to the keyboard and figure it out,'' says his mom, Pattie Mallette, who worked two jobs to make ends meet while raising Justin by herself in Stratford, Ontario. ''We were living below the poverty line,'' she recalls. ''We had a roof over our heads and we had food in the house, but we really struggled.''
When he was 12, Bieber entered a local talent competition. ''It was nothing huge. I just thought it would be fun,'' says the singer, who won second place with an eerily confident rendition of Matchbox Twenty's ''3 am.''
A few relatives couldn't make the show, so Bieber put the video of the competition on YouTube. When random Web surfers left encouraging comments, he uploaded more clips, eventually earning enough of a following to attract the attention of music manager Scooter Braun, the 27-year-old deal maker behind rap breakout Asher Roth.
Braun used his connections to arrange a meeting with Usher, who says he saw a bit of himself in the kid. ''He just had that thing, the 'It,''' Usher says. ''He's very charismatic. He knows how to charm a room.'' Usher wasn't the only one who thought so: Justin Timberlake also wooed Bieber, hoping to sign him to his Tennman label. ''I couldn't believe they were fighting over me,'' says Bieber, who ultimately went with Usher. ''It's just crazy!''
Things are likely to get even more nuts if his just-released third single, ''Love Me,'' takes off. And if all goes well, Bieber will soon hit the road for his first real tour. ''I'm going to have my friends on the bus,'' he says. ''It's going to be radical.''
A few musicians Bieber digs:
''He's Canadian, like me. He's got swagger. I just like his flow.''
''Sweetest girl ever. She makes all the girls and even the guys relate to her, because she tells stories that actually happened. Her songs are amazing.''
Boyz II Men
''I would put them on in my room and try to do the little runs that they do. Just stupid stuff. Vocal aerobics.''