Justin Bieber Awkwardly Mixes Romantic Tributes and Social Commentary on ‘Justice’

Justin Bieber’s new album “Justice” opens with a sample of Martin Luther King Jr.: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s an important thought at a time of painful divisiveness. But Bieber is not and never has been a politically-minded artist, and at 27 his encounters with social consciousness have frequently ended in ignominy, like the time he snapped suggested that Holocaust victim Anne Frank “would have been a Belieber,” and in 2017 got banned from performing in China by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture. Certainly he’s entitled to some youthful mistakes, and perhaps deserves an additional degree of forgiveness for making them in the light of constant public scrutiny. 

But except as a misguided conflation of two discordant sentiments, “Justice” is not a political record. Rather, it’s a tribute to Bieber’s wife Hailey Baldwin framed by King quotes and the ambient notion “to make music that will provide comfort, to make songs that people can relate to and connect to so they feel less alone,” as he recently told Rolling Stone. Consequently, mileage may vary for this collection of low-key love songs according to how seriously you take its intentions as opposed to its actual songwriting.

“2 Much,” that opening track, yields immediately from that political framework to a personal one as Bieber delivers the first in a series of odes to Baldwin. “Eternity with you ain’t long enough,” he sings. “Two seconds without you’s like two months.” So what does this have to do with MLK, much less that specific quote? Bieber and producer Skrillex, focusing just on Bieber and some reverb-drenched piano, aren’t saying. He further wrestles with the image of himself in her eyes on “Deserve You,” which builds into a mid tempo dance track with the help of producers Watt and Louis Bell, but again doesn’t offer many insights why a perfectly serviceable, occasionally exceptional collection of love songs gets framed by even a semblance of modern-discourse “wokeness.”

The good news is that Bieber’s voice sounds terrific: dueting with Khalid on “As I Am,” he soars through the verses with a supple, soulful, effortless warmth. And on “Off My Face,” performing just against acoustic guitar, his vocals absolutely dance with emotion, transitioning from crystal-clear falsetto to the honeyed not-a-boy-not-quite-a-man sound he continues to manipulate with increasing comfort. Unfortunately, while teaming up with Chance the Rapper for “Holy,” premiered to significant (and deserved) acclaim on “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 2020, Bieber puts a few more of his “grown up thoughts” on main street by drawing parallels between religion and romantic devotion, with less success than initially believed, especially once you listen more closely to some of the song’s lyrics (“Runnin’ to the altar like a track star/ Can’t wait another second… I don’t believe in nirvana / But the way that we love in the night gave me life”). Still, he sounds pretty terrific in front of a gospel choir.  

But just when you’re forgetting that King quote, Bieber throws in a second one originally from 1967, ending with “You died when you refused to stand up for justice.” At almost two minutes, it’s more unmooring than the first one; like the infamous David Guetta livestream from 2020 where he set King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to one of his generic trance instrumentals as a George Floyd tribute, it’s an astonishing moment of tone deafness — a gesture that is embarrassingly sincere but utterly unhelpful in advancing literally any productive thoughts about social justice. That it’s followed by an uptempo dance track entitled “Die For You,” theoretically fun but kind of the exact wrong message after a speech by an assassinated political figure, makes you feel like no one in Bieber’s circle was brave enough to challenge him about it, or worse yet, didn’t think about the potential juxtaposition at all.

Ironically, the second half of the album takes off with energy that’s much more propulsive and engaging than the first, and incrementally reflects the kind of musical maturation that it seems like fans want from him. Although his religious musings similarly feel more like an affectation than a deep expression of personal beliefs (on “Somebody,” he sings, “Every time I wake up next to you, I talk to God / And I’m so damn grateful ’cause you make up for the things I’m not”), a noticeable tempo shift really lifts the record to a different level. Daniel Caesar overshadows him a bit on the regional tribute “Peaches,” for example, but it’s such a groovy track that you can forgive the goofy chorus (“I got my peaches out in Georgia / I get my weed from California”) tying together their verses about the intimate moments shared with a lover. And even if he doesn’t completely make sense on “Love You Different” (“I will love you different / Just the way you arе”), the sincerity of his performance helps you understand what he means.

Given the song’s insistent focus on Bieber’s insincerities, you kind of wish he’d recruited the great Nigerian artist Burna Boy for a different track, but together they still make beautiful music on “Loved By You.” But Bieber’s still firmly in end-of-the-world-love mode on “Anyone,” where he sings “Lookin’ back on my life, you’re the only good I’ve ever done,” which you feel certain he means as a compliment and a testament to the greatness of a partner, but you can’t help but feel like he might be selling himself and his accomplishments just a little short. Working with Benny Blanco and Finneas, Bieber veers back into a more honest confessional mode on the final song, the introspective ballad “Lonely,” a gorgeous, revelatory track where he sounds vulnerable and honest in a way the rest of the songs don’t. In fact, it’s so sad in a way that you can’t help but want to protect this young singer, discovered at 13 and transformed into an international pop star. As the coda for a record clearly meant to evidence growth, “Lonely” shows just how much pain and pressure has accompanied that popularity; that doesn’t rescue “Justice” from its moments of misguidedness, but it says something that the moments he’s most compelling are not when he’s boldly moving forward, but showing the ways that he’s trying but sometimes falling short.

Justice” releases March 19 on Apple Music.