At the beginning of 2020, Justin Bieber was a victim of overexposure. In flagrant attempts to get his single “Yummy” to number one, he uploaded endless videos on TikTok of himself mouthing along to it and countless posts to Instagram hashtagging the song. His stans – Beliebers – campaigned for fans to buy the song twice. It was all a bit embarrassing. The song itself was revolting: an R&B slow jam that slithered over and around the words “yummy” and “babe” with no purpose (unlike Purpose, Bieber’s 2015 album of masterful, punchy pop) beyond its attempt to be TikTok fodder.
Justice, Bieber’s sixth album, is not much of a departure from “Yummy” and 2020 album Changes – widely received as a career miss – in that it is similarly excessive and exposing. On song after song, Bieber croons about how much he loves his wife (“You’re the only thing I didn’t get wrong”). I don’t doubt that these sentiments are genuine, but they have been mined for a deeply cynical product: a hyper-produced, overly long album of short singles (primed for Spotify and social media), heavy on reverb and light on direction. Saccharine lyrics are packaged in musical clichés without any of the glamour, fun or novelty of his earlier hits. The notion that he is some version of “off my face in love with you” loses its punch by the seventh wailing chorus of downtempo, derivative R&B (and, even then, there are still nine more tracks to go). This is money-making drivel, so when Bieber sings that he would “die for you” it feels exhaustingly grandiose.
There is a spiritual dimension to Justice (its “T” is a crucifix symbol and bears striking resemblance to the logo of French dance duo Justice, who have just issued a cease-and-desist order to Bieber alleging trademark infringement). Following a period of rebellion and a subsequent breakdown, Bieber found God and domestic bliss (themes also covered in his previous two albums). I’m happy for him, but unfortunately this does not make his music more interesting – on “Holy” there’s an organ and hint at a choir, but it’s an obvious, hollow gesture, and the track is forgettable. (Its high point is a verse by Chance the Rapper – throughout the album, the featured artists provide welcome variation in tone and pace.) He also attempts to channel the profound by using a snippet of a Martin Luther King sermon to open the album, and then later for an entire track, and declaring in a statement the album is him contributing a “small part” to “healing” for “humanity”. Quite how any of these songs actually do that remains unclear. I can’t help thinking that there’s a record label exec somewhere still feeling very pleased with themselves that “justice” sounds a little bit like “Justin”.
The best song on Justice is “Peaches”. Unlike the rest of the record, it’s mellow and soulful, with assured verses from Daniel Caesar and Giveon. Bieber is more natural on the stripped-back ballads with acoustic guitar, as when he riffs in soft falsetto on “Off My Face” (a song that would make an excellent first dance option for those who want to be sincere, but cannot quite stomach Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”) or on the acoustic sections of the volatile track “Ghost”, whose nonsensical lyrics (“I miss you more than life”) are redeemed by his vocal, which transitions seamlessly from tenor to soothing baritone.
But Bieber’s voice alone cannot save this album from itself. From its Britain’s Got Talent ballads, to its cover art that (possible plagiarism aside) looks more like a 2007 emo album than that of a modern pop giant, to its ostentatious romantic prophecies, Justice is an unfortunate explosion of self-indulgence and music industry cynicism. In the past, Bieber has proved he can make fantastic pop songs; we can only hope that, in the future, he does himself justice.