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DOING BIEBER JUSTICE

I feel like a bit of a shit saying it, but I’ve long been one of those people who grumbled about artists who got boring after they got happy.

How gratifying it is to report, then, that the happy Justin Bieber is not only the most aesthetically on-point Justin Bieber but also the most interesting iteration of same.

Justice (Def Jam), the artist’s brand-new set, seems to represent the umpteenth chapter in a fascinating career. Yes, the erstwhile viral-discovery-turned-wild-child had to “grow up in public,” but the point is that he definitely grew up. I won’t belabor the obvious by detailing how a stable, loving relationship, therapy and the bruises he’s accumulated along the way have brought us a Justin who’s reflective, compassionate, gentle and, yes, woke. But I will say that the difficult changes he has weathered—and implemented—have sharpened his art.

“I don’t want to fall asleep,” he sings on dreamy opener “2 Much,” “I’d rather fall in love.” That eagerness to be in the moment, grabbing the feeling, pervades Justice. On “As I Am,” his lovely duet with Khalid, he wraps his supple pipes all over the phrase “I’m not going anywhere.” Commitment and acknowledgement of one’s own flaws suffuse the record.

On more than one occasion he samples the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., ostensibly to flesh out the set’s title, and while it may seem presumptuous at times, the clips play out as reminders Bieber has set for himself—to keep his focus outward, his priorities straight—as much as invocations to address societal wrongs.

None of this would be particularly noteworthy, of course, if the music weren’t so strong. Bieber has always been an adept vocalist, but his ability to reach right for the emotional core of a song has never seemed more keenly developed. What’s more, his singing—while technically superb—is marvelously unfussy, grounded, soulful. Though he can leap from an intimate rasp to a sky-high falsetto in a single bound, he appears wholly unconcerned with playing superman.

A case in point: “Holy,” his irresistible collab with Chance the Rapper. The tune leans fully into its gospel feel, but Biebs resists the idolatry of churchy belting, preferring to lose himself in the feeling from the pews.

The heart of the album is a suite of electro anthems that drive their emotional themes onto the dancefloor. On “Unstable,” a tremulous joint effort with The Kid LAROI, and the propulsive, new-wavish “Die for You,” featuring Dominic Fike (which will naturally earn comparisons to “Blinding Lights”), Bieber wades into dark vocal territory, finding silvery surprises in his voice. “Hold On” and “Somebody” offer variations on the ’80s bounce of “Die for You,” once again mining hard-won lessons for pop bliss.

On “Ghost,” he pushes up against the highest part of his range as the arrangement slides between electronics and campfire guitar. “I miss you more than life,” he sings with the certainty of someone who’s eyed the abyss.

But he also knows when to lighten the mood, as on the cool-breezy “Peaches” f/Daniel Caesar and GIVĒON, which will shortly be emanating from a million cars gliding down a thousand roads with the windows down and cannabis clouds a-swirling. “Love You Different” f/BEAM is a sun-dappled affirmation that could turn any space into a club. Bieber joins forces with Grammy-winning Nigerian artist Burna Boy for “Loved by You,” a gorgeously syncopated acknowledgment of need.

And then there’s “Anyone,” arguably the closest thing to a thesis statement about the redemptive possibility of love, no matter what came before.

Justice closes with the jaw-dropping “Lonely,” a collaboration with Benny Blanco, the most unguarded and honest summation yet of the long, strange trip that Bieber’s life hitherto has been—and he full-on yodels the chorus. Not an ironic yodel, or a look-at-me yodel or a nod-to-Nashville yodel but a use of the trope as it was originally constituted, as a tumbling, echoing evocation of solitude and sorrow.

Still, “Lonely” stands more as postscript than premise. The ultimate message of Justice, after a million miles down depression’s dead ends? If the real thing stands before you, surrender yourself to it.

Bieber did. Now it’s your turn.

 

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