For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 8, we remember the year in Justin Bieber — who shook off a somewhat shakier 2020 and re-confirmed his status as one of pop’s most reliable hitmakers.
In mid-March, already four singles deep off his then-soon-to-come sixth studio album Justice, Justin Bieber was throwing up alley-oops on the Hot 100 — though often without his audience of dedicated Beliebers slamming them down for No. 1 debuts, as they would in past eras. The singles Bieber selected for Justice by that point were all obvious hits: Religious jam and lead single “Holy” featuring Chance the Rapper earned its peak at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 back in November of 2020, the Benny Blanco-assisted ballad follow-up “Lonely” found its footing at No. 12 in early 2021, and JB’s third and fourth singles, the triumphant stadium pop anthems “Anyone” and “Hold On,” peaked at No. 6 and No. 20, respectively.
But these chart performances weren’t exactly what we were used to from a man who was just five years removed from three back-to-back-to-back Hot 100 No. 1 singles in his seemingly effortlessly successful Purpose era, which then earned him the title of Billboard’s Greatest Pop Star for 2016. JB’s footing was still a little off from the critical iffy-ness of 2020’s Changes, which won some fans with its R&B flair, but fell short of Purpose numbers and failed to produce a Hot 100-topper. And in 2021, he needed an organic hit; one that arrived as naturally as the covers he’d uploaded to YouTube as a pre-teen.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
In came “Peaches,” a track Bieber partly debuted on an Instagram Live jam session months before, and one that he’d officially tease through a March 17 NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. Bieber’s stripped-down keyboard mess-around came just days before the album was released, and the frenzy it created on social media helped launch the song atop the Hot 100 from the jump, with two R&B singer-songwriter mainstays in Giveon and (fellow Canadian) Daniel Caesar both earning their first chart-toppers. And just like that, JB had his seventh No. 1 hit on the chart, making his Justice yet another win in a career full of commercial bounce-backs.
Dismissing every other track on the album as padding for “Peaches,” however, would be writing off one of the better pop albums of the last 12 months. Outside of the backlash the Biebs got for the MLK interludes on Justice, Bieber’s sixth record saw him in peak all-around form, toying with synths on “Die For You” and “Deserve You,” tapping into Simon-and-Garfunkel mode for dreamy acoustic love song “Off My Face,” and crafting an up-tempo emotional plea on eventual October single “Ghost.” With proven hitmakers Andrew Watt and Louis Bell, and go-to band leader Harv making a more permanent stay in Bieber’s circles, as past collaborators Skrillex and Benny Blanco (and Poo Bear in extended album versions) returned, Justice was able to secure a top spot on the Billboard 200 during its first week, debuting with 154,000 equivalent album units moved.
Bieber would continue to add to the set throughout the year, first with March’s Triple Chucks Deluxe version — which arrived the same week as his surprise-release religious-themed Freedom EP — and then October’s The Complete Edition. And as “Peaches” began to run out of song-of-the-summer steam, Bieber took the season right back with a vengeance on his addictive Kid LAROI teamup “Stay,” which once again topped the Hot 100 and earned him his eighth career stay on the throne. As someone who experienced (and survived) teen-pop stardom, the Biebs even stepped in for a bit of a mentorship role, as LAROI linked with (and quickly unlinked with) Scooter Braun Projects. This was the furthest thing from a transfer of power among young pop trailblazers, though – if anything, “Stay” helped JB reassert his dominance throughout 2021.
To keep the his guest-star momentum going in August, JB then joined Wizkid and Tems on the remix of their already global smash “Essence,” further monopolizing the airwaves during his winningest summer in years. His inclusion helped the song rise to a new Hot 100 peak of No. 9 and was reminiscent of Bieber’s 2016 and 2017 feature frolick, when everything he touched — from DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s record-breaking “Despacito” — didn’t just turn to gold, but to multi-platinum.
Bieber was also appropriately rewarded for his victories over these last 12 months. He capped an opening performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, alongside partner-in-crime LAROI, with an artist of the year win at the ceremonies. And while a career-record eight Grammy nominations in November — including in three of the Big Four categories (album, song and record of the year) — was no doubt validating for Bieber, he was likely most excited about the one in the best R&B performance category, a nod which was only a dream a year before. For the first time in his career, JB is being recognized in all of his elements, and whether or not a Recording Academy sweep is on the horizon, Bieber’s year is ending far more triumphantly than it began.
There have been numerous moments in the pop and R&B star’s career where he’s faced adversity and returned stronger than before. His career arc has been built on his ability to weather the storm, navigate changing audience interests, and get back in everyone’s good graces time and time again. The latest journey from Changes to Justice never required an image-altering haircut or apology tour to the general public tis time. It needed something that perhaps nobody has pulled off as often as Justin Bieber in the past decade: a pop smash that absolutely nobody can deny. He gave us two in 2022. And he sure as hell has a lot more left in him.
Later today: Billboard reveals our No. 7 greatest pop star of 2021, a countryman of Bieber’s.