“It’s hard to believe I’m the person you think I am,” Justin Bieber sings in the opening minutes of his new album, Justice. Although Bieber is addressing his significant other on the crisp, cavernous “Deserve You,” he may as well be speaking to the world at large. The pop superstar’s personality has shape-shifted so many times in the spotlight, from baby-faced teen heartthrob to TMZ-plastered problem child to redeemed stadium headliner to reflective new husband, that it’s natural for Bieber to believe that his millions of onlookers still need to understand his evolution.
Last year, he documented his newfound inner peace (achieved primarily through his marriage to Hailey Bieber) on Changes, a low-key, blissed-out version of the R&B that he tried out on 2013’s heartbroken Journals, and his first album in five years. While he’s quickly returned with Justice and is still focused on that happiness, Bieber gives himself the rope to explore its outer edges — who he was before finding joy, how he hopes it grows, how terrified he is of losing it. “I’m on my ten-thousandth life,” he sings a few seconds later on “Deserve You.” “But this the one I’m not giving up.”
If Changes represented Bieber’s hard-earned paean to the soul-calming glee of marriage, Justice is the sound of that personal triumph gaining depth and detail, which is why it’s ultimately more effective. Googly-eyed anthems like the gentle guitar ballad “Off My Face” and the trop-pop workout “Love You Different” allow Bieber to exalt his romantic cheer, but detours like “Unstable,” an emo-pop contemplation on personal insecurities alongside The Kid LAROI, and “Peaches,” a silky-smooth summertime jam alongside Giveon and Daniel Caesar, help vary the track list and prevent monotony.
As he’s done throughout his career, Bieber sells the lyrical approaches with his vocal earnestness, getting the listener to buy in when he’s urgently pleading, as well as when he’s gliding in a falsetto. An interlude featuring audio of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a sermon titled “But If Not” — which ends with the line “You died when you refused to stand up for justice” — doesn’t work in the context of the album, a misstep with the best of intentions. But even then, Bieber swoops in with feverish commitment on the following track and keeps us engaged.
That track is titled “Die For You,” features Dominic Fike, and is soaked in ‘80s flair: the maximum-cheese synths, the hard-snapping drums, the post-chorus beat drop, the way Fike stutters a few lines like he’s trying out for a Knack cover band. Bieber previewed that retro sound on recent single “Hold On” and snakes its finer points throughout Justice, with producers like Skrillex and Watt helping him perfect the pose; the approach utterly succeeds, in the same way that 2015’s Purpose dallied with EDM — also with Skrillex as a critical co-pilot — and scored Bieber the biggest hits of his career. A song like “Somebody,” simple in its uplift and undeniable in its squelching production flourishes, could very well get unleashed on top 40 radio and deliver the same type of durable throwback vibes that The Weeknd recently tapped into on his chart-conquering After Hours.
In the five years between Purpose and Changes, Bieber continued scoring huge singles thanks to a prolific period of collaborations, and post-Changes, songs like “Holy,” “Lonely” and “Anyone” — all of which appear on Justice — became top 40 staples. Amidst expectations of a commercial downturn, Bieber has more than proven his credentials as a reliable hit-maker. Now, he’s starting to blossom into a stronger album artist whose non-singles on a track list are just as crucial as the radio fodder. Bieber gains more artistic clarity on Justice, as he tries to express a complex emotional state over the course of an album instead of jamming it into three minutes. There have been countless iterations of Justin Bieber The Pop Superstar, but this one is spending the time to help fans understand who he is and where he’s going, and the result is his strongest front-to-back listen to date.