Well, here we are again. After a five-year-break away from the public eye in the wake of his album Purpose, which got just about everyone to throw their biases aside, dance wildly, and wonder if they had judged the man they call Bugatti Biebs too harshly, the iconic pop sensation returns with his second album in thirteen months. Of course, in that time frame things drastically changed for Bieber, bringing his new religious reckoning and dedication to his wife to these two new albums that are about equally nauseating in two different ways. Justice certainly makes sonic improvements upon the mind-numbing sludge of modern-day R&B’s absolute worst tendencies that coloured Bieber’s last album. However, Bieber’s Tweeted mission statement that this album is meant to address “suffering, injustice and pain,” and calling it his “small part” to “continue the conversation of what justice looks like” rings laughably and irresponsibly hollow, leaving an awful taste in the mouth when Bieber spends half his time begging for people to feel sorry for him and the other half relishing in marital bliss. Not only that, despite the more pop-oriented angle here, Bieber still feels content to fall into an inoffensive and vibe-heavy musical zone, sending the listener to dreamland over languid acoustics and rhythm-free, sparse instrumentals.
The album opens with a vocal excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr., preaching for an end to injustice. This is followed by “2 Much,” an almost uncomfortably co-dependent, percussion-free ballad set to nothing but gloomy piano chords as Bieber sings about refusing to sleep for fear of missing a single second of his wife’s glory. I suppose the injustice on display here is the fact that humans need to sleep in order to keep our brains from shutting down. Not only is the sample of King highly tone-deaf and inappropriate in today’s political climate, showing that Bieber doesn’t care about the real issues, it’s clear that Bieber doesn’t even care about this personal “injustice” to him – after all, the lethargic nature of the track itself sends me to sleep. Truly “a threat to justice everywhere,” as King so eloquently puts it. The track “Deserve You” picks things up in the tempo department with a falsetto chorus, booming drum hits and an 80s-inspired sound, as two of the most consistent hitmakers in the business in Andrew Watt and Louis Bell deliver one of the more successful attempts here at pop euphoria in line with the current disco renaissance. It’s a catchy melody, to be sure, but it also introduces the album’s other queasy element – Bieber pulling his best Chainsmokers routine and asking us to feel sorry for him. After all, as he admits here, being rich and famous turns you into a horrible person. Bieber pours mountains of praise upon the select few who still accept him for who he is, making these tracks feel like an obnoxious ego trip playing into the hearts of his impressionable legion of fans rather than a genuine, heartfelt admission of guilt. The opening run continues with “As I Am,” recruiting one of the industry’s only artists even more dedicated to regurgitating assembly-line sonic wallpaper in Khalid for a duet that runs through the exact same themes as the previous track over a more boring, mid-tempo instrumental of contemplative synths and vocal reverb.
It’s strange to say that Justice might be even worse than the soulless Changes, but where Changes made me feel nothing, Justice only continues to get even more specifically, tangibly annoying as it progresses. The track “Unstable,” featuring emo-crooner-in-training The Kid LAROI, sees Bieber dive into the new school of melodramatic melodic rap to once again put people who show some modicum of respect towards him on a pedestal, now with even more reverb and intentionally whiny vocal delivery to truly fit the style. After another interlude from Martin Luther King outlining the need to find a cause you are willing to die for – in his case fighting racial injustice – to give you purpose in life, Bieber unceremoniously cuts him off with a bad audio splice before responding to his message. Bieber’s noble cause? Protecting his wife. Steering the conversation to be about himself, especially over a watered-down After Hours-style instrumental that had me rolling my eyes, is a truly disgusting move that makes me even less ready to jump at the chance to forgive Bieber for the many previous transgressions he nods to here. His uncomfortable co-opting of King’s voice makes it seem much less like a childish mistake when he once said he hoped Anne Frank would be a “Belieber.” Later on in the tracklisting, “Somebody” feels incredibly dated and forgettable, while “Love You Different” continues tacking on a dancehall cut as a mediocre pop album necessity, long after the trend has died down.
The most infuriating part of the album is that Bieber has genuinely developed into a fantastic vocalist as he has aged, and he gets a couple scattered opportunities to really display that here. The track “Off My Face” finally uses the album’s subdued and sparse nature for good, Bieber’s wispy falsetto delivering an absolutely gorgeous melody as he finally pens a striking and meaningful duet to his new wife – no “girl you got that yummy yum” or “heart full of equity, you’re an asset” here. Over a Beatles-esque acoustic pattern with more moving parts bringing up the engaging factor, Bieber compares his adorable puppy love to complete intoxication, flipping effortlessly between his chest and head voice as he displays a masterful command of his instrument. The track “Ghost,” despite the truly awkward shifts between passionate acoustics and the drum-n-bass breakdowns, contains some of the more earnest lyrical gems as Bieber gets lost in memories and mourns those who have left too soon. “Loved By You” is another focus-grouped attempt at a trendy sound – in this case, Afrobeats, but at least Burna Boy drops a characteristically great verse. The shockingly fantastic crown jewel of the project, however, is “Peaches.” A carefree summer jam, Bieber trades soulful lines with Daniel Caesar and Giveon over an infectious live drumbeat and a carefully crafted charisma-fest of a chorus. This more fun, rhythmic R&B lane is where he belongs – why not explore it more?
Bieber’s four singles are scattered sporadically throughout – the track “Holy,” for one, sounds almost too goofy and upbeat to be a part of this overly and obnoxiously self-serious album, but it’s featured prominently in its early goings and stands out from the pack regardless, if only to hear Bieber having a little more fun with things. That Chance the Rapper verse is still as grating and cringeworthy as ever, though. The track “Hold On” basically sounds like what would happen if you played “Somebody That I Used To Know” over an AI-generated output of every Police song combined, and contains lyrics so surface-level that you can convincingly apply them to the plight of Bieber’s local hockey team, which he did in his music video. The project closes out with “Anyone,” another strange tonal clash with its build-up to a heavier instrumental section at the end, and finally “Lonely,” the absolute peak of desperation to redeem Bieber’s image. Usually attempts to tug at the heartstrings this shameless get me to feel something regardless, but Bieber’s character across the board is so patently unlikeable that the track amounts to nothing more than an opportunity to laugh at his yodelling.
Bieber asks us throughout Justice to understand the plight of a rich and famous man who might feel disconnected from reality and alone as a result. He tries to tell us that he’s grown up, and moved past acting out in a reckless manner as a result, but the entire existence of this album, showing a shocking lack of empathy and understanding for those who need real justice, tells us that isn’t true. Separating the art from the artist is, of course, highly important – but the art is pretty awful too.
Favourite Tracks: Peaches, Off My Face, Holy
Least Favourite Track: 2 Much