Justin Bieber’s last album, “Changes,” was one of the most quotable albums of 2020. That was not a good thing. The ick ran pretty thick in a collection of songs that invited fans to join the singer and his bride in their honeymoon suite but left the less voyeuristic among them thinking: Maybe you had to be there. Between the spiritual overtones and the bedroom talk, it was an album that made you feel like you were spending time with a mildly R-rated version of one of those pastors who’s always on Twitter bragging about his smokin’ hot wife.
The honeymoon isn’t exactly over in “Justice,” a collection that’s being released a mere year and a month after “Changes” and finds the singer no less besotted than before. The songs are still rife with blissed-out romantic positivity, with very few exceptions (see: the outlier that proves the rule, “Lonely”). The first single from the album, “Holy,” with its feature from fellow choir member Chance the Rapper, was an early indication that the overall mood might not be much changed: there would be more about Hailey, more about God and, most of all, more about Hailey-as-God, with the singer as her (or Her) wholly unworthy supplicant.
But, with that bit of consistency established, it’s hard to overstate just how much better than its predecessor “Justice” is, as if there really had been some divine intervention take place over the last 13 months. It almost raises course correction to an art.
One immediate big switch: It’s a pop album. All right, not entirely — there’s a good deal of stylistic variation over the 14 standard-edition tracks, which is another big positive — but it lands in that direction enough of the time that you may have to stop and wonder: Is this the same guy who just complained about the Grammys moving the records that he submitted as R&B music into pop categories? It is, and he eventually gets to more explicit R&B sounds in the later stretches of the sequence. But it may be a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” or maybe he’s just having a laugh on us by risking the embrace of that which he recently seemed to consider anathema. Or, who knows, maybe he’s actually grown confident enough for the acceptance that he’s gotten from his peers as a soul stylist (Grammy classifications be darned) that he feels freed up from having to have the whole record fit that pocket. Whatever thinking led to it, “Justice” goes a good way around the stylistic map and is the better for it.
It helps a great deal that, for as many musical points as it hits, it isn’t hitting them randomly. The sequencing of the album seems roughly and smartly divided into thirds, each with its own emphasis. The opening few tracks are mostly “Justice” as its most subdued, with no particular need for drums on every numbers, much less the percussion du jour at all times.
After six tracks in this more relaxed and melodious vein, there is an interruption, in the form of the second of two Martin Luther King Jr. spoken interludes (more on that oddity later), and after this commercial break for social consciousness, “Justice” suddenly resumes as an entirely different kind of album. Now, it’s a pop album right out of the 1980s, with synths that sound synth-ier, drums and guitar lines that are reverb-ier and jaunty hooks that could be described as maneaters. It’s not quite so throwback that you expect a rotoscoped A-ha member to jump out from behind the waveform; you’ll still hear some trap tapping in there, too. But for a few minutes, or more, it sure sounds like someone wants his MTV.
And then, with “Peaches,” a full 12 songs in, Bieber finally delivers the first full-on, completely contemporary-sounding, full-swagger R&B song of the album, to kick it into the final stretch. Suddenly, in-between verses from Daniel Caesar and the upstart of the moment, Giveon, Bieber is singing a ridiculous sing-songy chorus about how “I get my weed from California / That’s that shit / I took my chick up to the North yeah / Bad ass bitch,” and you’re thinking about how awful it would be if he provided a whole album of that, but how purposely funny and even breath-of-fresh-air it feels deep into an album that theretofore hasn’t had anything remotely like it. (And the ultimate message of the song is sweeter and less crass than those lines make it sound.) It’s like a bit of light comedy as a seventh-inning stretch in an album that otherwise isn’t totally huge on levity.
The more grab-baggy and aggressive final third of the album winds back down with the already familiar “Lonely” as its downer climax. When the tune first came out back in October, it was kind of easy to be dismissive of it as yet another in the long line of songs where superstars complain about the attention that has come their way as the result of their fame. But maybe it’s because Bieber hasn’t touched on, yet alone belabored, anything like that for the preceding bulk of the album, that it seems to come out of nowhere, anew, as kind of, like, a legitimately touching lament. It feels honest but it also feels like he’s earned the right to gripe by being so much happy-go-luckier in the lead-up to singing: “Everybody saw me sick / And it felt like no one gave a shit / They criticized the things I did / As an idiot kid.” Maybe it’s in the wake of that Britney special that some of us can receive this in a different spirit than we maybe did five months ago… even though it’s still kind of a weird way to end the album. (Or not end it, when multiple deluxe editions inevitably present themselves.)
Speaking of weird: There are two MLK Jr. speech excerpts on the album, one right at the beginning, as the extended lead-in to the album opener “2 Much” (do you think King could have dreamed he would share a co-writing credit with Skrillex?). The other, a longer speech mid-album that has King talking prophetically about there being causes so great that they are worth dying for, leads into “Die for You,” one of those MTV-golden-era-sounding numbers, about how the singer is so in love with a woman that he doesn’t care if he gets killed in the process. Now, if you’re wondering why anyone thought it was a good idea to conflate civil-right martyrdom with the thought of succumbing to a hot woman, keep wondering: It, like the other MLK bit, or the socially-conscious-sounding rationale for the album title, for that matter, doesn’t make a lick of sense.
(Speaking of strange, let’s just give a shout-out to the album’s other most regrettable moment, when, in “Love You Different,” Bieber is brave enough to sing, “Under covers ain’t no rubbers / On this planet I’ll treat you like a mother / Let’s make baybeyyyyys” — lyrics so TMI you can only assume they had to be leftovers from the “Changes” album.)
But listen, we come here to praise Bieber, not to bury him. And so much goes right on “Justice” that it’s easy to skip over an ill-fitting title and a questionable moment or three and focus on how he’s re-found his footing here. Although lyrics will never be the selling points of most of his records, he and his army of co-writers do find rhythms for him to expertly slide into that allow for nearly subtle syllabic echoing (“Showed you the door / You adored me anyway,” he points out in “Unstable”) or just the dumb fun of classic pop stuttering effects (the way he’s gonna “ge- ge- ge- ge- get her” in “Die for You”).
Whatever he may be saying, Bieber’s vocal performances have never been stronger. It’s not exactly a unique trick, but when he glides from feathery to falsetto in “Off My Face” (an early track on the album that’s just him and acoustic guitar), it’s hard to think of any male star right now who can do it better. The reason he has the respect of his R&B peers isn’t because of the beat-makers he’s hired, his former street affectations or because he’s the purest exemplar of the genre ever. It’s because he can sing, and he does a lot of that in “Justice” in short, succinct bursts that rarely come off as showy.
Credit should also be offered for the quality of the features here. On “Changes,” it was easy to look at a guest list that included Post Malone, Lil Dicky and Travis Scott and assume they were chosen because… they’re popular? On “Justice,” the usual plethora of guest slots brings in performers who actually feel like they complement Bieber somehow, whether it’s the horny Christianity of Chance the Rapper or the mumblecore-ythm ‘n blues of Khalid or the demonstrably international cadences of a Burna Boy.
Throw in a long but smartly assembled selection of A-list producer/co-writers that includes Andrew Watt, Skrillex, the Monsterz & Strangers, Louis Bell, Benny Blanco, Finneas and too many more to mention, and it adds up to a Bieber who is actually making smart choices pretty much all around, all of a sudden, sounding like the antithesis of what he admits he once was: “Unstable.” This is a honeymoon that could last.
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