Around this time last year, Justin Bieber put out his fifth album, ‘Changes’. It was meant to pick up where the hugely successful ‘Purpose’ had left off five years earlier, while also ushering in a new era for the Canadian pop star. But it failed to live up to expectations, lacking the passion, direction and individualism that his previous effort had thrived upon. Bieber’s sense of self had been lost and replaced with bubblegum bangers with little heart.
But life’s about trial and error, and with new album ‘Justice’, Bieber appears to have rediscovered his mojo, resulting in one of his most focused projects to date.
Rich in subject matter, the record plays out like the pages from a personal journal. From lessons in love and compassion (‘As I Am’) to holding his hands up to past mistakes (‘Lonely’), this is Bieber at his most sincere. He spends the first four tracks celebrating his wife Hailey Baldwin with the playful, acoustic-led ‘Off My Face’ and the incandescent ‘Deserve You’ (listen out for the Phil Collins ‘In The Air Tonight’-style drum fill) the two standouts.
Elsewhere, ’Ghost’, an up-tempo record about lost loved ones, hits hard but imparts a healing guitar riff to cushion the blow, while the previously released ‘Holy’ is a spirited reminder to have faith even when all seems lost. It’s evident Bieber wants to offer reprieve to fans struggling with lockdown while exorcising his own demons.
In last year’s Seasons docu-series, Bieber discussed his struggles with being in the public eye and the impact it had on his mental health. Unpacking this further on ‘Unstable’, he gets candid, his words taking precedent over the beautifully sparse soundscape. “Sometimes I think I overthink / Then I start to feel anxiety/ There were times I couldn’t even breathe,” he sings over the opening chords of The Kid LAROI-assisted track, before admitting there were times he struggled to love himself, and that Baldwin picked him up in his darkest hour.
Something else that affected Bieber last year was the death of George Floyd, the African-American man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. Speaking out on several occasions during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Bieber wrote in one social media post: “I am committed to using my platform from this day forward to learn, to speak up about racial injustice and systemic oppression, and to identify ways to be a part of much needed change.”
‘Justice’ is by no means a protest album. But while it may be galaxies away from Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, deep within the fabric of the album’s electronic soundscapes and love-drunk ballads there are messages of hope, morality and standing for truth.
Before the neon sonics of the ‘80s-inspired ‘Die For You’ featuring Dominic Fike – which wouldn’t sound out of place on The Weeknd’s ‘After Hours’ album – Bieber prefaces his message of sacrifice with a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech from November 1967. At the height of the civil rights movement – and just five months before his assassination – King told the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church: “If you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.”
That said, plenty of ‘Justice’ finds Bieber offering feel-good pop songs designed simply as an escape from the world’s current state of chaos. The Skrillex-produced ‘Somebody’ is a strobe-light lit, ride-or die-anthem bolstered by weighty drum kicks and an addictive chorus; ‘Love You Different’, which features a breezy guest spot from Jamaican rising star Beam, plays like an Afrobeat-infused sequel to 2015’s ‘Sorry’; and ‘Loved By You’ hears Bieber and Burna Boy team up to bring to life one of the best pieces of songwriting on the album.
Speaking of collaborations: sparks fly when Bieber teams up with Giveon and Daniel Caesar (the latter of whom sang at Bieber’s wedding) on the sun-kissed ‘Peaches’. R&B through-and-through, laced with a West Coast bounce, it’s the ultimate pick-me-up, inviting visions of beach drives with the top down.
’Justice’ is Bieber’s redemption song, and a more fitting follow-up to ‘Purpose’. Armed with a newfound optimism borne from a dark place, he understands he’s better when he’s tapping into his own experiences, projecting relatable human emotion and working out why he’s here. He’s singing about the things he cares about: his wife, his mental health, social injustice and so much more besides.
With bangers, ballads and heartfelt moments, the hopeless romantic with a penchant for self reflection and tackling world issues is back. Beliebers rejoice!
Release date: March 19
Record label: Def Jam