Justin Bieber: Justice Album Review | Pitchfork

The absence of Poo Bear, Bieber’s primary songwriting collaborator since 2013’s Journals, is conspicuous. Instead of falling into the predictable, adult contemporary-style R&B they made together, Bieber is marching decisively towards capital-p Pop. Justice dances between collaborations with post-genre singers including Khalid and the Kid LAROI, production from Post Malone hitmakers like Andrew Watt and Louis Bell, and songwriters like Rami Yacoub and Gotye. With songs like “Somebody” and “Hold On,” he even indulges in the power-poppy ’80s nostalgia that has recently transitioned from the fringes of pop to its main stage. While he hasn’t fully abandoned the diasporic sounds that granted him some of his farthest-reaching hits, they aren’t his center of gravity; the breezy collabs with the dancehall artist BEAM and the Afropop superstar Burna Boy are serviceable, if not brimming with chart-topping promise.

Bieber is not a powerhouse vocalist, but he is a compelling one, casually dropping in a stray yodel here, a Mariah Carey-indebted set of runs there. His voice has a palatable smoothness; he’s mastered push-and-pull dynamics, and he swings effortlessly from a placid chest voice to a zephyr of a falsetto. That litheness and control are on full display across Justice. Even when the songwriting is spiritless and the production rote—and it occasionally is, as on the confessional “Unstable” and the saccharine “Deserve You”—he still sings the hell out of it.

In fact, Justice delivers some of the strongest, most tightly controlled vocal performances of his career. Two standouts are the piano slowburn “2 Much” and the acoustic-guitar ballad “Off My Face,” a play on his newfound sobriety that is sweet, full-hearted, and entirely convincing, in spite of the cliché. The singles “Holy” with Chance the Rapper and “Peaches” featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon, share warm instrumentation, a swinging beat, and a lived-in sense of groove that suits him. In recent live performances, accompanied by the five-piece We the Band, he even tested out jazzy interpretations of the songs; his NPR Tiny Desk set is almost transcendent, imagining a future in which Bieber might deliver an artistic statement that functions as a complete thought.

Where Justice fails is, of course, that it is not really about justice at all. The surtext is marital bliss, the subtext is worship. Religious references abound: “I get my light right from the source,” he sings on “Peaches”; “Heaven is a place not too far away,” he promises on “Hold On”; “You prayed for me when I was out of faith,” he trills on “As I Am.” Nebulous references to a generous and all-consuming love are the stuff of both Bieber’s style of pop music and the contemporary praise of his post-Hillsong Christianity. But even when it’s unclear whether Bieber is singing about his wife or his god, the renewed vigor in his performance points to the transformational potential of love, be it terrestrial or heavenly.

Buy: Rough Trade

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