The Lowdown: After an unfortunate misstep with Changes, released last year just before lockdown, Justin Bieber found himself, once again, at a sharp crossroads: carry on writing meme-able nonsense for lyrics, or put forth something that makes better use of the large production budget his label shells out. Fortunately, on Justice, he chose the latter.
Unfortunately, if ever there was an example of the needle tipping too far, this is it. While Justice steps away from the lyrical fallacies of its predecessor, for an album that is much more expansive and explorative, the record has way too much nonsense surrounding it. If at any point you begin to wonder why the first voice on a song about submitting sexually to his wife is not Bieber, but civil rights leader and martyr Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rest assured that you will be left wondering. I still am.
The Good: Amid the mess, there are several gems on Justice. “Deserve You” plays on Bieber’s — or rather, his label’s — strengths: surround-sound production, sprawling beats, attractive synths, and a catchy melody. “Hold You” is equally as good production-wise; the ‘80s drive-time and clear-cut synths evoke something of “Bette Davis Eyes”. And “Peaches” is the standout track of the album: a colorful, R&B-adjacent fever dream, co-produced by Daniel Caesar, who, along with Giveon, is featured. Caesar’s effortless falsetto gracefully bridges gaps, and Bieber and Giveon’s voices are a wonderful hue of tension.
The fantastic interplay of intricately woven synths and guitarwork is ruthlessly efficient on “Somebody”; anchored by a snappy baseline, it sounds like a hyper-pop experiment that is unexpectedly brilliant. And you don’t doubt Bieber’s emotional connection to “Lonely” — “Everybody saw me sick/ It felt like no one gave a shit” — which places the lows of growing up too fast under a harsh spotlight on full display.
The reality, however, is that many of the upticks are simply because it’s just so much better than Changes. For all the lazy choruses that Justice has to offer, the songs mirror the bright syncopation of his best songs on Purpose and feel much less voyeuristic than the songs on his last effort. Lending to that feeling of Purpose déjà vu is the triumphant return of producer Skrillex, who helps lift the album gracefully out of monotony.
The Bad: Three weeks ago, when the album was announced, Bieber made the statement: “In a time when there’s so much wrong with this broken planet, we all crave healing – and justice – for humanity. This is me doing a small part. My part. I want to continue the conversation of what justice looks like, so we can continue to heal.” The nonchalance of this particular album release, announced just three weeks ago with little to no promo, seems to undercut the shameless desperation with which “Yummy” and its accompanying album was marketed with — if you’ll recall, Bieber asked his fans to play the song on loop while they slept. This 180° seems purposeful. It’s as if Justice was marketed to feel like an impromptu release, borne out of both the civil rights reckoning of today and the flaws of the US that the pandemic exposed. And that might’ve been great, had it stuck with that.
But the album deals with neither of those things. It’s titled Justice but fails to contain any lyrics regarding justice. He claims to be “doing [his] part,” but what part, exactly, has Bieber done here? Apart from “Lonely”, the lyrics grapple with nothing more than marital horniness, loneliness, and lovelornness — all acceptable topics, but ones that have nothing to do with the current atmosphere.
“2 Much”, though rather catchy, sounds utterly wrong when placed in the context of a MLK snippet — descending into sappy, lovelorn lyrics about missing the sheets of his marital bed while the affecting words of Dr. King still hang in the air is in remarkably poor taste. “Unstable” suffers the same fate: its snippy drive-time and rousing synth undercuts sound like a beguiling combination of a piano ballad and a ‘00s country track, but the mood is immediately confused when the jarring baritone of King cuts in. The nearly two-minute snippet, an excerpt from a 1967 sermon, sees King framing the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as an act of civil disobedience: “If you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you ain’t fit to live.” Whatever the intentions here, hearing MLK’s words in the context of a marriage-sex album makes something of a mockery of his poignant message, and the speech alone cannot make up for the lack of depth that surround lyrics such as “Even if your kiss could kill me/ You know I would die for you (“Die for You”). There’s just so much to grapple with there. “Lonely” suffers a parallel fate; in this context, it starts to seem like Bieber’s intentions were to portray his own issues as one of those injustices. The backdrop of racial violence we are currently grappling with paints that ideology in a pretty unforgiving light.
Bieber’s reluctance to evolve lyrically is where the issue partially lies. He has never been known to write particularly deep lyrics. If his past records were strong – and some were – it was because Bieber’s songs survive the passivity of their treatments; they were a success because there is still enough nostalgia for that boy singing on YouTube so long ago to keep even casual listeners engaged. Thus, to anticipate something so complex from Bieber and his songwriters as a fully formed album of socially conscious commentary to rival 2Pac and Marvin Gaye starts to feel a little far-fetched, and it’s probably a gesture best left unmade.
So, why try to frame it as such? Contrary to his statement, almost all of Justice is Bieber trying to resurrect hollow, horny jams, desperately clinging to subject matter that flopped on Changes and should not have been revived. On nearly every track, he waxes poetic about his never-waning love, and as he sings on about settling for even “the ghost of you,” the impact remains as barren as the imagery. The wife, who this is undoubtedly about, takes on an overblown, do-no-wrong persona as he praises her endlessly, referencing her in nearly every song. “Under covers ain’t no rubbers/ On this planet I’ll treat you like a mother/ Let’s make baybays,” he sings with a terrible drawl on “Love You Different”, once again slipping headfirst into the jaws of Changes-esque lyrics.
The Verdict: Ultimately, years of fame may have led to Justin Bieber believing that his music hits quite a bit harder than it does. With the inclusion of multiple Dr. King snippets on an album largely about romantic love, Bieber seems to fall short of even his own expectations. Justice spins far more like an ode to his “hot wife” Hailey than it does a reckoning with any type of injustice, and it certainly doesn’t grapple in any way with a world rife with prominent racial struggles.
Bieber’s career has been a rollercoaster ride, a series of breakneck turns for the sole purpose of keeping up with the musical zeitgeist. But as we have seen, especially during this quarantine, the albums that fit that mold effortlessly are the ones that hit the hardest. This was not one of them. All in all, he has a pretty solid record of radio-ready hits, some that could double back as hazy, danceable club tracks. But MLK could have been left to rest in peace.
Essential Tracks: “Somebody”, “Unstable”, and “Peaches”
Pick up a copy of Justice here…