It is with some awkwardness – confusion? – that I have to tell you that the first voice you hear on Justin Bieber’s new album, Justice, is that of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King returns midway through Album back, in an interlude in which a speech is sampled about that a life without conviction and passion is no life at all, which is absolutely true.
King’s calls to action are undeniably powerful – they should be widely heard. And yet they do not feel anchored in the framework for an album by the 27-year-old pop star: a grand gesture in search of an equally ambitious commitment – political, spiritual, emotional – to strengthen it.
It just draws attention to the lingering underlying conundrum with all things Bieber has, namely that, despite some indelible hits, his fame far surpasses his catalog and that he has kept it – in an open or reluctant, destructive or self-protecting manner – throughout his career. never has rested in one place for very long and never tried to stand up for its own particularity.
Because of this, his last album, Changes, was one of his most successful, full of mid-range R&B that goes well with his slightly silky voice. It wasn’t a runaway success, but it was coherent and reassuring, and most importantly, baggage-free. It was also a reminder that Justin Bieber, the musician and performer, may not be actively interested or particularly well-suited to the song scale that is usually prescribed for someone as popular as Justin Bieber the celebrity.
However, the disorganized, sporadically strong “justice” feels like a slap on the wrist for “change” or the version of Bieber that nursed it. Instead of settling for one groove, this album oscillates between several: quasi New Wave, Christian pop, acoustic soul and much more. Instead, “Justice,” Bieber’s sixth studio album, is full of songs that feel like production practice, sprayed lightly with Eau de Bieber, the musical equivalent of merchandise.
A variety of guest functions offer the opportunity to try out different appearances with varying degrees of success. The production of “Love You Different” with dancehall rapper Beam nods weakly to the Caribbean, but is nowhere near as effective as Bieber’s 2015 smash “Sorry”. Nigerian star Burna Boy appears on “Loved by You”, but Bieber doesn’t match his guest’s casual gravitas.
“Die for You” is perhaps the most ambitious stylistic collision here. A fast-paced, synthetic duet with aspiring pop slacker Dominic Fike that dates back to the mid-1980s, but Bieber isn’t the kind of power singer who can beat the extravagance of the production. The same goes for “Unstable” with Kid Laroi, the Australian singer-rapper who knows his way around Juice with a WRLD whine – Bieber sings seriously while his partner bows in fear.
By far the most successful of the collaborations is “Peaches,” a sun-drenched and seductive R&B number with rising stars Daniel Caesar and Giveon, which Bieber finds the most vocal (although he was in even better vocal form at the time, debuted this song on solo the Tiny Desk Concert from NPR.
For the most part, however, “Justice” tries to force Bieber into big tent pop – the John Hughes movie chords on “Hold On” or the runway walk-bop from “Somebody”. In places like “Ghost” these impulses are at least soured with the acoustic guitar, and the shift in his singing is remarkable – he transitions from an accented piece to the main character.
Lyrically, “Justice” focuses on songs about triumphing over unfortunate behavior, about preaching devotion to a more powerful being – a woman, a God – who has not left you in a time of need. “You prayed for me when I was no longer in faith / you believed in me when no one else did / It is a miracle that you did not run away,” he sings pointedly, “As I am”.
At the end of the album is “Lonely”, the moving piano ballad that he released last October and that felt like the cleanest break with his former self that he had ever hired for a song. These songs are Bieber at its most self-referential, least crowded, and also at its strongest – they end a persistent, intimate feeling that runs through an album that does anything to distract from it.