A testament to fidelity and faith that plays out in mid-level bops, it casts Bieber as both worshiper and penitent. The singer, now 27, spent his early adolescence chasing pop stardom, and even longer trying to outrun it. His narrative arc — from a resentful teen grappling with drug addiction and celebrity to a besotted, church-attending husband — is well-documented on “Justice,” which is also about the trapdoor of stardom and the insecurities and loneliness that can plague even the blondest famous people.
But mostly it’s about Hailey: On opening song “2 Much,” which unhappily recalls Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” he coos: “Two seconds without you is like two months/Don’t wanna close my eyes/I’m scared I’ll miss too much.” On “Holy,” a gospelly collaboration with Chance the Rapper, one of several songs that effectively conflates love of a partner with a love of God, he’s “runnin’ to the altar like a track star.” On “Off My Face,” a distant, less catchy, not-about-cocaine cousin of “Can’t Feel My Face,” Bieber is off his face in love (“One touch and you got me stoned/Higher than I’ve ever known”).
“Justice” experiments with different styles, but almost everything gets run through the same blender of mild, Weeknd-like pop, with less inventiveness and even more malaise. It isn’t always great, or even good, and there’s little novelty to its sound. But its preoccupations — marital bliss and religious redemption — are brave ones for a young pop star whose appeal, like that of all pop stars, depends on his ability to seem both hopelessly cool and romantically available. And, look, it’s sweet, even if “Justice” often approaches Ronald-Reagan’s-letters-to-Nancy levels of needy uxoriousness. Any listener who has followed his unsteady rise might now worry less about Justin, who appears fine, or at least fine-ish, and more about Hailey, who hopefully has a good group of girlfriends she can talk to because her husband seems like a lot.
Perhaps because its makers sensed that there are only so many faith-affirming Hailey ballads even Beliebers can handle, “Justice” adopts a mullet-like approach, with mellow marriage odes in the front and party songs that are also mostly about Hailey in the much superior back half. The best track is the lonely “Ghost,” a rafter-rattling ballad about missing someone (Hailey, probably) perfectly suited to the unique concerns of quarantine. “Peaches” is a bottom-heavy, throwback R&B song, a collaboration with Daniel Caesar and Giveon that begins as a loving ode to weed and ends up a loving ode to the missus.
“Justice” begins with a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. quoting his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” (“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) and doubles down in the middle with a recorded excerpt of one of King’s sermons, the latter bound on each side by odes to Hailey, including one about how he would die for her. It’s impossible to overstate just how unwise this is, how unthinkable that none of the album’s dozens of collaborators was able to talk Bieber out of such tone-deaf foolishness. “I want to continue the conversation of what justice looks like so we can continue to heal,” Bieber tweeted, though “Justice” holds no such conversation.
It ends with “Lonely,” a spare piano ballad co-written by Billie Eilish collaborator Finneas O’Connell that contains some of Bieber’s finest, most filigreed vocal work. It casts an unsparing eye on Bieber’s misspent youth, and those who trolled it: “Everybody saw me sick/And it felt like no one gave a s—/They criticized the things I did as an idiot kid.”
It’s a transparent, and not undeserved, bid for the sort of retroactive sympathy we’ve recently given Britney Spears, whose early ’00s struggles with mental health and substance abuse, and the crushing weight of teen stardom, presaged the ones Bieber would face less than a decade later. But “Justice” blatantly couches its pleas for fairness in a racial framework it clearly has no interest in. The only justice Bieber asks for is for himself.