Justin Bieber wanted to drive himself.
On a cloudless, windy afternoon in February, three cars pull up to a mansion in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon: a hulking Yukon Denali, followed by a grey Tesla model X, followed by a black Range Rover.
Two serious-looking bodyguards get out of the first and last vehicles. Bieber emerges from the Tesla; his wife, Hailey Baldwin Bieber, steps down from the passenger seat. The bodyguards hover nearby at a respectful distance, while the couple — swaddled in oversize, especially soft-looking clothing — offer up their nasal passages for rapid COVID-19 tests ahead of Bieber’s photo shoot.
Bieber is a month out from releasing Justice, his sixth studio album (out March 19) and his second in 13 months; the R&B-focused Changes arrived on Valentine’s Day 2020, just as the world was going through some major changes of its own. Bieber’s two most recent albums have bookended the most tumultuous year of American history in living memory — but for Bieber, whose life in the spotlight has been strange and tumultuous enough, it was a much-needed reset. “It’s the first time I’ve had this much consistency and predictability,” he says over Google Hangouts the day before, “like ever, really.” He pauses. “It’s really nice.”
These days, Bieber stops working at 6 p.m. so he can spend the evenings on the couch with his wife. (“Hailey’s love language is just lying around watching a movie,” he says.) He goes to bed at a reasonable hour. He rises by eight and checks in with his management to learn what has happened for Justin Bieber the pop star while Justin Bieber the husband was offline. He uses an iPad for this communication because he does not possess a cellphone, which isn’t actually that normal but gives him the power to limit who can reach him. “I definitely learned how to have boundaries, and I just don’t feel like I owe anybody anything,” says Bieber. “That has helped me to be able to just say no and just be firm in it and know that my heart [wants] to help people, but I can’t do everything. I want to sometimes, but it’s just not sustainable.”
“Boundaries” is a key word in the 2021 Bieber lexicon. Back when he was a teen phenom releasing four albums in five years — and promoting them with roughly 450 tour stops between 2010 and 2017 — not doing things he didn’t want to do wasn’t really an option. Even the most casual music fan has absorbed the rough outline of his life story through pop culture osmosis — the single mother, the hardscrabble childhood, the YouTube origin story — just as they are undoubtedly familiar with the lowlights that nearly consumed him. Last fall, he released New Chapter, a 25-minute addendum to his 2020 YouTube docuseries, Seasons, in which he revealed there were times when he felt “really, really suicidal.”
Today, the 27-year-old Bieber is able to look back on harder times with a surprising degree of Zen. “I can talk about that part of my life and not feel like, ‘Oh, man. I was such a bad person,’ because I’m not that person anymore,” he says. “I also have done the work to know why I was making those decisions. I know where that pain was coming from, that caused me to act the way I was acting.” (It doesn’t hurt that the documentary arrived on the cusp of a wider reckoning with the trauma of child stardom — he hasn’t watched Framing Britney Spears yet, he says, “but I’m going to.”)
The calm of quarantine life, his stabilizing marriage and a renewed commitment to his faith have put him, as every single member of his inner circle attests, “in a really good place.” Promoting and touring an album, though, means he’ll have to leave the comfort of his 2020 bubble. With Justice, he’ll find out just how compatible building schedules around date nights, staying right with God and getting a good night’s sleep are with maintaining a perch at the pop apex — if that’s even what he wants. “At this point, I’ve reached a level of success so many times that I know success isn’t a be-all, end-all to my happiness,” says Bieber.
To date, Bieber’s catalog has earned a combined 22.6 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to MRC Data. If Justice becomes another Bieber success story, it will be a major win for his longtime label, Def Jam, where Bieber is the reigning pop prince — and, label sources say, its biggest moneymaker by a landslide. Around 70% of his streams and music consumption come from fans outside of the United States, and Def Jam’s parent company, Universal Music Group, has designated him as one of its global priority artists, an international program that in past years has supported powerhouses like Billie Eilish and J Balvin. That means all of UMG’s resources — “Every dollar, every door,” says a source close to the company — are available to ensure he stays at the top.
To hear members of his team tell it, that’s a refreshing change from last year. Bieber released Changes during a transitional period for his label: One week after the album came out, news broke that Def Jam’s then-chairman/CEO, Paul Rosenberg, was stepping down. “Changes was a bit of a struggle for us,” says SB Projects president Allison Kaye, who has long co-managed Bieber with Scooter Braun. “We needed a team that was supermotivated and ready to jump in, and we didn’t feel like we got it. And thankfully, [UMG’s central corporate team] stepped in. It ended up being a No. 1 album, everything ended up being great. But this time around, it’s a different scenario.” (Among the promising changes: Def Jam now has a product manager solely dedicated to Bieber.)
Perhaps no one is more crucial in keeping the trains running smoothly these days than Bieber himself. “He was driving this at such a rapid pace,” says Braun of Justice. Bieber now pays attention to the little things, like the final mixes of his songs. (“I could for sure do that for him, but he didn’t defer to me,” says Josh Gudwin, Bieber’s longtime producer, engineer and mixer.) He takes the lead in conceptualizing performances, like a Valentine’s Day TikTok livestream concert that drew 4 million viewers. He is an active participant at rehearsals. “This is a kid who I used to have to beg to go to a rehearsal,” says Kaye, who during less stable moments of Bieber’s life was often the one who had to ground him. “We used to have to take his computers away or put someone outside his door so he couldn’t sneak out.”
None of these feats are especially remarkable — being where you need to be and caring deeply about your creative output are basically the bare minimum in 2021, when the most celebrated pop stars tend to be workhorses, creatively or otherwise. But for a guy who freely admits he’s still learning how to be an artist and a healthy adult at the same time, showing up, staying present and enthusiastically doing the work are a good start. In conversation, Bieber is earnest (“I appreciate you giving me a platform to speak with all my heart”), endearingly polite (“I hope you have a great day”) and, for once, pretty excited to be doing all this. “I think this is the first time in my life where I’ve actually enjoyed the process of releasing an album,” he says.
“He’s not even becoming a boss — he’s becoming a leader,” adds Kaye. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see out of someone whom you’ve known since he was, like, 12.”
The songs came quickly. Early on in the pandemic, Bieber and Hailey were holed up at their house in Toronto when Braun, Kaye and Gudwin started passing him tracks culled from the pool of demos submitted by writers, managers, publishers and producers. “It’s a lot of crap material,” says Gudwin of these submissions, “but a lot of the stuff I get directly from the actual songwriters and producers is usually stronger because they have more of an idea of where Justin is as an artist and person.”
From his home studio, Bieber cut the tracks he liked and sent them back to this inner circle. When he returned to L.A. a few months later, his recording intensified. With Changes, Bieber was determined to make an R&B record — and went so far as to call out the Grammy Awards for nominating him only in pop categories last fall, a decision he called “very strange” on social media. “It can definitely get frustrating,” he says today, before softening: “They’re humans, and they can’t get it all right every time.”
This time, however, nothing was off limits. Justice spans the beatific brightness of “Someone” to the No Jacket Required-era Phil Collins nod of “Deserve You,” from the R&B-centric pop of “Peaches” to the acoustic balladry of “Lifetime,” which will surely soundtrack plenty of nuptials in the post-vaccination wedding boom of 2021. “He’s singing the best I’ve ever heard,” says writer-producer Benny Blanco, who has worked with Bieber since his 2010 debut, My World 2.0. “When we were doing Saturday Night Live [last year] and he was hitting these runs, I was like a little kid sitting there like, ‘Wow.’ ”
The team hadn’t planned to follow up Changes so soon, says Gudwin, “but once you see a list of songs in front of you, it’s like, ‘Oh, shit. We have a fucking album.’ I think Justin realized we had an album maybe two months ago.” (Kaye, on the other hand, jokes she had that realization “yesterday, when it got turned in.”)
Changes was by no means a commercial failure: It spawned two top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and has earned 1.1 million equivalent album units. But it didn’t exactly live up to expectations. Changes never produced a Hot 100 No. 1, even though it seemed like Bieber really wanted one when he shared a since-deleted Instagram post advising fans to boost the chart performance of lead single “Yummy” by, among other things, streaming the song while they slept. (He did, however, score a No. 1 last May with the one-off Ariana Grande collaboration “Stuck With U,” a charity single that benefited the families of frontline workers.) Then, in March 2020, eight stadium shows on the Changes tour were downgraded to arenas because of slower-than-expected ticket sales, sources told Billboard at the time. (The tour was later canceled due to the pandemic.)
Changes was hardly uncommercial in its sound, but members of his team talk about it like some wild stylistic departure that faced an uphill battle from the start. There’s Gudwin, who describes it almost as a niche personal project: “With Changes, Justin gave what he needed to give at the time, and that was an R&B album. [Justice] has a lot more pressure because of the style of music.” Or Braun, who describes it as if it were an outlier in his discography that really can’t compare to his other albums: “On Changes, he led [creatively] as well, but that was R&B — it was a different project.” Or Kaye, who says that Def Jam was “out of their comfort zone” when it came to releasing an R&B album by a pop artist: “It wasn’t what they were used to doing.”
It certainly looked like his team was trying to get some distance from Changes last fall, when Bieber started releasing an avalanche of singles, well before Justice was even a fully formed album. “I can’t pretend like there was never any plan to put out a [deluxe edition of] Changes or any of those things,” says Kaye, “but we headed into COVID and he just started cutting all of this music.”
First came the sprightly Chance the Rapper collaboration “Holy,” then the tearjerker ballad “Lonely,” then the Shawn Mendes duet “Monster” — a summit of Canadian wunderkinds — and, finally, Bieber’s own “Anyone,” all of which became Hot 100 hits. (“Lonely” peaked at No. 12, while the other three reached the top 10.)
This deluge-style rollout came from Braun and Kaye, along with Def Jam executive vp promotion Nicki Farag, who has been working with Bieber since she escorted him on a run of small-town radio appearances when he was a kid. Initially, Farag was skeptical when Braun proposed the idea while playing her a dozen new songs last fall: “I’m like, ‘You’re out of your fucking mind. Who’s going to want to consume that much Bieber in such a short amount of time?’ ” But she came around, and today says that it’s an effective, “never been done before” way to reintroduce stars like Bieber to a wider pop audience.
It’s also a fitting strategy for promoting music during a pandemic, says Kaye. “There’s no common culture, there’s no office, there’s no water cooler everyone’s going to,” she says. “So it’s about meeting people where they are because they’re only talking to their friends who are interested in the things they are interested in.” “Lonely,” she continues, was a track that worked well at adult contemporary radio “that my parents were loving like my little sister’s friends were loving ‘Monster’ at the same time. When you’re only working one single at a time, you’re only reaching the people that single speaks to.”
The team also knows that a No. 1 only has so much value. Chart turnover in 2020 was historically high: There were 20 new Hot 100 No. 1s — the most since 1991 — and 12 of them were No. 1 debuts, the most instant chart-toppers ever in a single year. Big, splashy debuts are common; hanging around, less so. “I know consumption patterns have changed, and it’s like, ‘OK, let’s jam it to the top, and who gives a fuck if it falls down,’ ” says Farag, “but we make more revenue if it’s consistent for months, and that’s what ‘Holy’ has been doing.”
And in the end, a slew of No. 1 singles isn’t necessarily what makes an artist happy or productive. Purpose was a blockbuster album that spawned three inescapable back-to-back No. 1 singles: “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” and “Love Yourself.” Its album campaign also ended with the cancellation of its last 14 tour dates, including several U.S. stadiums, for what was described at the time as “unforeseen circumstances” but was in fact, his team says now, a clear mental health crisis. “He was going through something that he wasn’t expressing to anyone,” says Kaye. “We didn’t really understand what we were canceling it for — we just kind of had to.”
“Everything was about success, benchmarks and such, and then I was just still empty, you know?” says Bieber of earlier chapters in his career. “All my relationships were suffering, but I had all this success and all of this money, and it just wasn’t fulfilling for me.” It was time, he knew, to start putting in the work on something other than his music.
There are few summaries of Bieber’s youth as succinct as the one he delivers on “Lonely”: “Everybody saw me sick,” he sings, “and it felt like no one gave a shit/They criticized the things I did as an idiot kid.” When Bieber recorded it, he broke down crying in the studio and “had to go sit down and, like, drink a tea,” recalls co-writer Blanco. “This is the most honest Justin you’re going to get.”
There is a sense among his team that Bieber has been unfairly doomed to a life of having to constantly explain himself, of having to revisit low periods from fresh angles no matter how far in the rearview mirror they are. “He spent all of the Purpose tour apologizing for being a teenager, which was ridiculous,” says Kaye. “If someone had cameras on me at 18, it would have been way worse than what anyone saw on him.”
But lately, Bieber himself has more willingly embraced that role. That was part of the impetus behind Seasons and New Chapter. “I just want to be somebody who can say, ‘Look, I did some things that I’m not too proud of, but I took a look in the mirror and decided to make some changes, and you can too,’ ” he says. When asked what’s at the top of his list when he’s thanking God for his many blessings, he replies without hesitation: “That I’m forgiven.”
When he talks about his faith, Bieber closes his eyes and rubs his temples in a way that seems like he’s pulling the words from the depths of his soul. When he canceled the last leg of the Purpose tour, the biggest changes he made to get better were going to therapy regularly for the first time and reconnecting with God. “I just changed my priorities so that I didn’t [become] another statistic of young musicians that ended up, like, not making it,” he says. Pop music, it turns out, is a pretty effective vessel for sharing a message for the masses: “There was a time where I really did have my identity wrapped up in my career, but I really do have an overflow of feeling like my purpose is to use my music to inspire.”
Recommitting to his faith has, no doubt, been easier with the support of a like-minded partner. Bieber and Hailey, who married in 2018 at a New York courthouse, are, undeniably, cute together. While posing in the estate’s sprawling gardens, Bieber dotes on his wife: “Babe, let’s go for a walk,” he asks between shots. “Babe, let’s build one of these,” he offers while sitting in a gazebo. He sings along to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, a sonic snapshot of newlywed bliss that has been his go-to photo shoot soundtrack since he and Hailey had it on heavy rotation during a road trip to Utah last summer. “God really blessed him with her,” says Bieber’s longtime collaborator Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd. “He could have ended up with anybody. To get a female who actually is equally yoked and as heavy into Christianity as he is, it’s really a blessing.”
She is also undoubtedly good for business. “There are very few people in my life where you’re like, ‘Everything’s going to be better if their spouse is here,’ ” says Kaye, who calls her “a godsend.” “Days that I know Hailey’s coming to set, I’m like, ‘This is going to be the greatest day ever.’ ”
Though Hailey does not exactly have a traditional desk job — she is best known as a model and has appeared on the cover of Vogue in 11 different countries — the way she operates her life and career has been a positive influence. “One thing that has been so helpful is my wife is so by the book,” says Bieber. “She’s so structured and routine and so responsible.”
That has inspired Bieber to take a more active role in his own career. It’s a work in progress: He says he’s “learning about contracts and trying to get what’s fair,” and sources tell Billboard that Bieber has been in the process of negotiating a new deal that would allow him to own his masters going forward and license them to UMG, while participating at a higher rate in the revenue from his UMG-owned catalog. (This is an increasingly common arrangement that lets artists claim ownership without necessarily changing the returns much for them or their label over the course of the licensing deal, which can span decades.) But he still relies on his team to do, well, all the things an artist hires a team for in the first place. And he credits Hailey with helping him “realize that I either take responsibility for this or else I’m not going to be able to sustain a certain lifestyle that I want.”
Hailey will also accompany him when he goes on tour, which Kaye expects will be sometime in 2022. Though Team Bieber has now tried twice to make him a stadiums act in the United States (on the Purpose tour, he played stadiums in Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia), Kaye says the next tour will focus on arenas for logistical reasons. “Our initial attempt to figure out a show that could work for both stadiums and arenas was a fiscally daunting thing,” she says of the Purpose tour. “I don’t think we’re going to try to do that again. Building a show for both sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s not the easiest.”
Bieber himself is “really excited” to get back on the road, and being married is a big reason why. “We’re going to plan really cool excursions with the two us,” he says — one of the ways they plan to make the grueling nature of life on the road a little more bearable. “He’s done tours before, but he’s done tours as a kid, he’s done tours when he was in a bad place, and he’s done tours when he was going through it on Purpose,” says Kaye. “He’s never toured as a healthy adult.”
Bieber doesn’t seem all that concerned about when this tour will actually happen. For now, he’s got his wife, his relationship with God, his fans, his voice, his team and a new album that overflows with appreciation for all of them. At the end of the photo shoot, he thanks everyone and announces he’s going for lunch (“with Babe,” of course). Then he climbs back into the Tesla — sandwiched between two other SUVs, but in control behind the wheel.