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'Justice' as injustice: Bieber’s newest album’s disconnect between message, content

Pop star’s recent release uses social justice as foil for professing personal experiences with love, self-doubt.

In his sixth full-length studio album, “Justice,” Justin Bieber reveals vulnerabilities and maturity in a way we have not yet seen from him, but he falls short in making the connection between the album’s purported message of social justice and its actual content. 

Bieber has had quite a complicated relationship to his own stardom. The media traced his trajectory to fame in salacious ways, representing Bieber as a pop star who transformed from a baby-faced heartthrob to a tattoo-covered delinquent. After the unforgiving limelight and judgment seemed to have fully consumed Bieber, the singer took a five-year break from music, between 2015’s “Purpose” and 2020’s “Changes.”

“Justice” may have been a much better-suited album for Bieber’s comeback, recalling his roots in pure pop sound, which felt lost in songs like “Yummy” on “Changes.” It is ironic that after his angry outburst about the genre debates surrounding “Changes” at the 2020 Grammys, Bieber released an unapologetically pop album, and quite a good one at that.  

The new album, released Mar. 19, features mature, pared-back ballads that don’t have the flashy production of his usual hits. Interestingly, this vulnerability has proven to be a theme of the many albums that have been produced during the past year, such as Taylor Swift’s “folklore” and “evermore.” In the slowness of the pandemic, popular musicians have received a break from the constant pressure from the public, allowing for an introspection that is clear in their music. 

However, despite the actual quality of the music in “Justice,” there is one flaw that is difficult to ignore. Apparently trying to stay true to the theme of the title, Bieber uses samples of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “But If Not” as an interlude, as well as the opening line, of the opening track “2 Much”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

After tweeting messages of advocacy for many racial justice organizations with the release of “Justice” and framing the album as a much-needed statement about social justice, one would assume that at least one of the tracks would not be about the artist’s newfound marital bliss with wife Hailey Bieber. However, this is not the case. Even “2 Much,” directly after the quote from King, exclusively broadcasts Bieber’s endless adoration for his white, supermodel wife over soft piano chords: “Say, ‘I love you’ under my breath / More times than you can digest.” 

The disconnect between King’s speech and the lyrics that follow make the messages in the album feel like a tool to gain viewership. Here, Bieber seems to fall into the celebrity-fueled practice of treating social and racial justice as part of his brand, or a trend, rather than an actual political commitment.

But, the unfortunate trend of performative activism pervades the rest of the album. Following “MLK Interlude,” where the sample of King has him stating that the refusal to fight for justice and the truth is equal to death, Bieber sings “Die For You,” which is not a track about putting one’s life on the line for social justice, but rather about his willingness to die for his wife. This feels especially gratuitous, as well as a tone-deaf usage of King’s words. 

But aside from this, the album provides a wide variety of refreshing tracks. “Die For You” and instant hit “Peaches” both offer a unique homage to the 1980s through dancey power-pop production, evoking a sense of nostalgia for listeners. 

Aside from nostalgia, Bieber communicates vulnerability through his songwriting, revealing insecurities evoked by the love he has for his wife. In “As I Am,” he acknowledges his mistakes and selfishness, and pleads for love in spite of it all. Atop the piano slow burn instrumental, Bieber croons about the all-consuming nature of his love: “Sometimes, I don’t know why you love me / Sometimes, I don’t know why you care / Take me, with the good and the ugly.”

The emotional vulnerability of “As I Am” continues into tracks like “Unstable,” illustrating Bieber’s personal and musical maturation. He seems to recognize his mistakes and views his wife’s acceptance and unconditional love as his saving grace. 

“Lonely,” which was previously released as a single to much popularity, reveals a different aspect of Bieber’s vulnerability, providing insight into the abject loneliness that accompanies fame. In the two-and-a-half-minute piano ballad, Bieber utilizes his signature vocal prowess to compare his life to a “house ... made of glass,” directly revealing the impact that pop stardom has had on his privacy. 

Aside from opening up about his own insecurities, every song on this album is quite clearly dedicated to Bieber’s wife. It is an album full of twee love songs, which is why the ostensible social justice-themed message and promotion feel disingenuous.


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