A still-smitten Justin Bieber goes bigger and more melodic on Justice
Last September, due to quarantine restrictions — or maybe just as a favor from one colossally famous Ontarian to another — Justin Bieber stood in for Drake in DJ Khaled's "POPSTAR" video. Clad in silky psychedelic loungewear, he popped bottles poolside, wandered carelessly past his own ersatz Warhol, and lip-synched to lines about helicopters and platinum cards with the golden-boy swagger of someone who knew those subjects well.
Less than six weeks later, the singer returned with a very different clip for "Lonely," this time handing off the duties of his own presence to a young actor who eerily resembles him at 15, Good Boys' Jacob Tremblay. In both mood and substance, "Lonely" landed like the bleak Black Mirror flipside of "POPSTAR": a raw, plaintive piano ballad about regret and alienation and the hollowness of fame.
"Lonely" earned Bieber, now 27, some of the stronger notices of his career, and peaked at no. 12 on the Hot 100; "POPSTAR" bowed at No. 3. That's the mystery and current contradiction of an artist who in his brief, spectacularly well-documented life has accumulated more hits than he literally knew what do with: Seven consecutive no. 1 albums, 22 top 10 singles, streaming records that regularly tick over to the next billion.
That seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, infamously, led to a personal spiral for which he has been on a sort of extended apology tour for the last several years; a redemption arc that has managed to become both his new personal narrative and a creative one. If this Justin 2.0 — a grown, godly man guided by faith and redeemed by romantic love — sounds familiar, that's because it's pretty much the same guy we met a scant 13 months ago on Changes, his most recent studio album.
The pandemic may have sped the arrival of Justice, in large part because he couldn't tour for Changes; it wouldn't make him the first artist in COVID times to turn back to the studio. And it feels in many ways like an expansion and a high-gloss polish on his swerve toward that last record's lite-R&B identity: Sixteen tracks of feathery, mostly midtempo bedroom jams set off a ways downstream from the sweet candyfloss of his teen years and the giddy, electrified bangers of the Purpose era.
The majority of Justice is still heavily invested in what you might call Husband Bops — earnestly impassioned odes to the life-saving love of his wife of two years, Hailey Baldwin Bieber. She is the muse of the adoring opener "Much"; the airy, percussive "Deserve You"; the chorus-climbing self-acceptance anthem "As I Am"; the love-struck acoustic lullaby "Off My Face"; and the Chance the Rapper-assisted "Holy," a gospel-brunch rave-up in which he exalts "runnin' to the altar like a track star/Can't wait another second." (She may be envied for it, but it can't be easy being Hailey — a lovely model who seems through her husband's eyes to have all the qualities of an angel, and very few of an actual fallible human.)
And those are just the first six songs. If Bieber's favored topics haven't shifted their focus much since Changes — every forever a promise, every line a wedding vow — Justice happily expand its sonic palette with more textures and tempos: the sunny California slide of "Peaches"; the clattering, vaguely grime-y "Ghost." (Though good luck trying to connect the dots between a two-minute interlude of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking truth to power in a 1968 sermon and the Giorgio Moroder jiggle of "Die for You" that immediately follows, without blowing some kind of frontal-lobe fuse.)
While several singles, including "Holy" and the pretty, high-altitude "Anyone," made respectable numbers, none so far have touched the heady heights of inescapable Purpose anthems like "Sorry" and "Where R Ü Now." If there's a sense that Bieber is still actively turning away from the kind of monster hit-making he seems almost bionically built for, he is by all accounts happier, healthier, and far more grounded than he ever was at the peak of his commercial success: a pop star not retired or even at rest, exactly, but content to wander for a while longer down his own scenic route. Grade: B