Album Review: Despite Several Stumbles, Justin Bieber Shines With ‘Justice’

Justin Bieber is back. Even when the pop sensation was in the midst of a more underwhelming album campaign (Changes), he still pulled out multiple Top 10 hits, a #1 album, and three Grammy nominations. With Justice, the Biebs looks well-poised to return to the chart domination of his Purpose era despite a few missteps. Decidedly more grounded in pop music with a capital “P,” Justice sees Justin working through a journey of self-healing and closure grounded by his love for his wife and his honesty with himself. Featuring guest appearances from Daniel Caesar, Giveon, Beam, Burna Boy, Dominic Fike, Chance the Rapper, Benny Blanco, and The Kid Laroi, Bieber shifts through myriad sub-genres of pop music. The album still manages to maintain some level of sonic consistency, but, thematically, it does fall apart at times.

Justice begins with a snippet of a speech from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s voice rings out “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s a famous quote that appears to set up Justice as an album that will comment on the current political landscape in some way. Instead, Bieber does a complete 180. “2 Much,” produced by Skrillex, is one of the best songs on the album. Sonically, the track finds Bieber back in the pocket he works best: electropop ballads. In the vein of “I’ll Show You” or “Where Are Ü Now,” Bieber flexes a soft yet earnest vocal performance. He sings heart-melting couplets about his love and devotion to his wife, Hailey Bieber, with lines like “Don’t wanna close my eyes, I’m scared I’ll miss too much/Don’t wanna fall asleep, I’d rather fall in love.” With the gorgeous melody in the pre-chorus and the contrast between the striking piano and haunting upper harmony in the chorus, “2 Much” is a great intro to the album. Nevertheless, the song has absolutely nothing to do with injustice. At best, Bieber is looking to be on the side of fighting for love and justice, but that’s a very elementary interpretation of King’s speech and his specific stance on racial injustice.

In spite of that, Justice embarks on a solid multi-track run. “Deserve” builds upon the lyrical foundation set in “2 Much” as Justin laments how he “[doesn’t] deserve you tonight.” It’s a run-of-the-mill pop song with trademark Jon Bellion flourishes, but it’s the vocal acrobatics near the end of the song where Justin pulls out some nice riffs that really drives the song home. Khalid is the first guest appearance on Justice and he is easily among the best on the album. “As I Am,” is an anthem of unconditional love and commitment. Khalid is such a standout guest artist because of the gravity he holds on a track. He opens up his mouth and his tone just draws you in. His smokier tone works well against Bieber who’s singing with an almost-anguished belt. The hook (“Take me as I am, swear, I’ll do the best I can”) has a melody that’s slightly reminiscent of Kelly Price’s chorus on Biggie’s “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” which accentuates the breezy feel of the song. In terms of production, this could have been a Zedd track from 2017, but it still sounds fresh. The following triad of tracks is the best instance of sequencing on the album. “Off My Face,” “Holy,” and “Unstable” dig into the tension between being embroiled in personal darkness and finding relief and healing in the arms of a lover. “Off My Face” gifts us a nice acoustic moment. This track kind of sounds like one of the British ballads that go viral every year or so (think: James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go”), but Bieber’s voice is definitely enjoyable here. The Auto-Tuned “oohs” in the bridge do disrupt the organic feel of the song, but it doesn’t destroy it completely. Lyrically, the song compares love to a drug, but that sentiment carries a different weight in the context of Bieber’s own battle with drugs in the past. There are notes of codependency trickled throughout the lyrics which makes the triumphant glory of “Holy,” the following song, feel so much more sincere. Released back in September of last year, “Holy” is still a really solid record in the context of the album. The intersecting concepts of love and religion gain more grounding with the final track in the triad, “Unstable.” Featuring contributions from The Kid Laroi, Bieber really starts to dig into the power and purpose of love in his life and how it has helped him find justice for himself. He sings “Sometimes I think I overthink/And I start to feel anxiety/There were times I couldn’t even breathe/But you never once abandoned me.” Between the honesty here and the disarming nature of the pre-chorus, “Unstable” is one of the most beautiful songs of Justin’s career. The sparse production doesn’t quite work, however, because, melodically, the song simply isn’t interesting enough. In addition, The Kid Laroi adds absolutely nothing to this song; he sounds like more of a distraction than a well-balanced collaborator.

Def Jam

After a remarkably consistent first half, the back half of Justice fails to hold itself together. The back half feature collaborations with Daniel Caesar, Giveon, Beam, and Burna Boy — all four of whom are the primary high points for this part of the album. “Peaches,” which features Daniel Caesar and Giveon, is in the running to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this coming week, and it has already taken TikTok by storm. Produced by Shndō and HARV, the slinky R&B-inflected track is a breath of fresh air. First, it’s nice to hear Giveon and Daniel Caesar on something more groovy since the two R&B stars are so fond of melancholy mid-tempos and ballads. The trio’s voices work surprisingly well together with Giveon’s baritone adding some much-needed texture to the smoother falsettos of Bieber and Caesar. The only downside to “Peaches” are Bieber’s ad-libs in the hook. When he recites “that’s that shit” and “bad ass bitch,” he sounds a bit awkward which hurts the overall energy of the song. As for the Burna Boy-assisted “Loved By You” and the Beam-featuring “Love You Different,” neither song is anything to write home about, but they aren’t completely unlistenable either. “Loved By You” finds Bieber flirting with notes of afrobeats in the production as he sings about an unrequited love. The song could have benefitted by some sort of change in production because the beat starts to drag by the second half, and Burna Boy also feels misused. The two artists are definitely capable of a better collaboration. With “Love You Different,” the Biebs dips his toe into a tame version of dancehall or as Rihanna would probably call it, “airport reggae.” The song continues to hammer the theme of unconditional love that has been persistent throughout Justice, but thirteen tracks in, it starts to feel like overkill. Bieber’s solo tracks on the back half of Justice are also fairly weak. “Anyone” is still as mediocre as it was when it first premiered as a single earlier this year, “Hold On” is still a passable piece of radio fodder that doesn’t really add anything to the album, and “Somebody” sounds like a Radio Disney song. Nevertheless, there’s “Ghost,” the most interesting song on the album. Produced by The Monsterz & Strangerz and Jon Bellion, “Ghost” blends echoes of PC music with moments of dry acoustic guitar for a soundscape that underscores the friction of reflecting on relationships and love that no longer exist. Bieber would do well to explore this sound further on future records. And then there was, “Die For You,” the Weeknd-esque electro-pop song that follows Bieber’s “MLK Interlude.”

Bieber’s use of two speeches from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Justice has drawn a lot of controversy. Ranging from criticism to praise, debates have been swirling across social media about this artistic choice. The use of these speeches ultimately makes for two uncomfortable moments that disrupt the flow of the album. People will argue that Bieber is helping to spread Dr. King’s message. At face value, that is correct. It is likely that there are people, presumably younger non-Americans, who may encounter Dr. King and these speeches for the first time through Justice. However, there are issues that cannot be ignored, and it would be a disservice to Bieber’s art, Dr. King’s words, and consumers in general, if we acted as if everything is perfectly fine. First, in theory, these speeches are supposed to connect to the larger theme of justice that grounds the album. The speeches sampled by Bieber are explicitly about racial injustice and the fight against it. There is no way of getting around that. Bieber’s exploration of justice is more personal; he sings of finding justice for himself in his darkest hours and finding justice and refuge in the love of his wife and God. His feelings here are valid, but to use the words of Dr. King and strip them of their civil rights context to instead contextualize the singular experience of a wealthy white man is disrespectful, to say the least. A message spread without context is simply a collection of words. On another note, Bieber is sampling some of Dr. King’s most famous and palatable quotes. Even in a case where a listener may not have been familiar with Dr. King, it’s fairly likely that they’ve heard some variation of one of the quotes in these speeches at some point through various forms of media. Of course, there will always be instances where this is not the case, again, particularly for non-Americans.

Truthfully, this is a conversation to be had amongst Black people exclusively. The intentions may have been genuine, but if the impact causes discomfort for the group of people Dr. King was speaking to in those speeches, do not discount those feelings. If Justice actually housed songs about racial injustice and Bieber’s place in that fight, maybe the samples would make sense. Instead, as nice as most of these songs are, they’re almost all about how much he loves his wife. You can’t sample Dr. King preaching about “taking a stand” for truth and justice and then follow it up with a song like “Die For You.” Dr. King was speaking about putting his life on the line for the Civil Rights Movement (and he did); Bieber is singing about dying for his wife because he loves her that much. These two things are not equivalent. The sermon sampled in the interlude, “But If Not” (1967), is largely centered on the Bible and Christianity, two concepts Bieber is definitely familiar with. The difference here is that Dr. King is using these Biblical narratives to contextualize a larger point about standing up for what is right in terms of truth and justice in the Civil Rights Movement. Sandwiching that message between two love songs ultimately does more harm than good. Dr. King’s speeches and image have already been sanitized enough by white historians, we didn’t need a pop star to contribute to that whether that was his intention or not. The optics of a white man co-opting the words of a Black civil rights leader to contextualize love songs for his wife and then profit off of those words are… not good. Justice didn’t need the speeches from Dr. King. In fact, the album would have been better off without them.

Justice is by no means a bad album. It’s a surefire improvement from Changes, and it instantly sits among Journals and Purpose as one of Bieber’s strongest full-length efforts. The bloated tracklist could have definitely been downsized since songs like “Anyone” end up being mind-numbingly redundant by the end of the album. Moreover, if Bieber didn’t get in his own way with those Dr. King samples and simply delivered a collection of songs drawing on his experiences without trying to tie them into the larger theme of racial injustice, this would have been an even better album. Justice is home to some of the best songs of Bieber’s career, like “lonely” which is still incredibly heartfelt and poignant several months later. There’s something for everybody here which makes Justice a strong pop record. All Justin had to do was tighten this album up from a conceptual and thematic standpoint because he pretty much delivers on all other fronts. Regardless, expect to hear tracks from Justice all summer long as the world begins to open back up.

Key Tracks: “Ghost” | “2 Much” | “Peaches” | “As I Am” | “Unstable”

Score: 65

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