Justin Bieber’s New Album Is Not Nearly As Disastrous As Expected
When this year’s Grammy nominations came out, Justin Bieber had a gripe. His album Changes had been nominated in the Best Pop Vocal Album category. Its lead single, “Yummy,” was in the running for Best Pop Solo Performance. “Intentions,” the album’s hit Quavo collaboration, was up for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance. Throw in a Best Country Duo/Group Performance nod for “10,000 Hours,” his one-off track with Dan + Shay, and Bieber was sitting on a very healthy four nominations. So what exactly was the problem? Was Bieber upset that he’d been overlooked for the biggest awards and relegated to the genre categories?
Nope. His objection was related to which genre categories he was competing in. “To the Grammys I am flattered to be acknowledged and appreciated for my artistry. I am very meticulous and intentional about my music,” Bieber wrote in a message posted to his Instagram account. “With that being said I set out to make an R&B album. Changes was and is an R&B album. It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album which is very strange to me. I grew up admiring R&B music and wished to make a project that would embody that sound. For this not to be put into that category feels weird considering from the chords to the melodies to the vocal style all the way down to the hiphop drums that were chosen it is undeniably, unmistakably an R&B Album!”
It’s hard to feel too bad for Justin Bieber in this regard, but his situation says a lot about the way genre distinctions are often code for racial distinctions. However, he will not be able to make the same argument if his new album is nominated next year. Justice, released last Friday, is as undeniably pop as Changes was unmistakably R&B. Lyrically, the new album continues to explore the marital contentment theme that dominated Bieber’s prior release. But where the soundtrack for Changes was mostly miasmic trap music, Justice is filled with bright production and big, bold choruses designed to echo across arenas. In some senses it picks up where Purpose, the 2015 album that marked the former child star’s introduction to grownup pop stardom, left off.
Justice isn’t exactly Purpose: Part II, but it skips across the sounds of Top 40 radio with a similar effervescence, attempting a similar balance between the corny and the cutting edge. Skrillex, who worked on several key Purpose tracks — including the post-EDM blastoff “Where Are Ü Now” and the carbonated dancehall hit “Sorry” — returns to produce three songs here. Also on board is Benny Blanco, the superstar whisperer who helmed Purpose‘s spiteful acoustic ballad “Love Yourself.” Watt and Louis Bell, two trusty Post Malone lieutenants who’ve become in-demand producers across the pop mainstream, are heavily involved, as are industry mainstays the Monsters & Strangerz and electronic-leaning singer-songwriter Jon Bellion. Beyond the expected army of writers and producers, Justice assembles a carefully curated palette of guests: Bieber’s longtime kindred spirit Chance The Rapper, Afrobeats star Burna Boy, SoundCloud rap pipsqueak the Kid LAROI, legacy dancehall star Beam, Gen Z post-genre type Dominic Fike, and a range of young R&B stars including Khalid, Daniel Caesar, and Giveon.
The army of industry players has constructed a version of Justin Bieber meant to appeal to the broadest possible audience, an album that beams out into the world even as it maintains its predecessor’s inward focus. The Bieber of Justice remains almost monolithically fixated on his love for his wife, Hailey, and the way their romance has been a shield and a salve. The album is littered with lines like “I don’t want to be my past/ Oh, when we kiss I feel brand new” and “I thought I painted a picture of Heaven/ But it turns out it’s just your room.” Sometimes he takes a turn for the self-loathing, too. “Sometimes, I don’t know why you love me,” he admits on “As I Am”; “All I do is wish that I could change myself,” he confesses on “Loved By You.” As exemplified by lead single “Holy,” the Christian faith that undergirds their marriage is still in the picture, too; on the minimal “Off My Face,” a sort of inverse “Love Yourself” that somehow brings new life into the old love-as-drugs metaphors, Bieber works in a reference to speaking in tongues that could be perceived as a double entendre about oral sex.
On Changes, the unchanging subject matter coupled with a consistent musical backdrop made for a claustrophobic listen. Justice opens his sonic universe back up again, which yields a much more engaging experience even as Bieber remains stuck on the same topics. But if Justice returns to Purpose‘s ecumenical approach, it also reflects the significant shifts in the pop landscape that have taken place in the interm. In particular, rock’s minor resurgence within the mainstream genre cocktail has led to an influx of guitars on the album. Rising hit “Anyone” drains every last vestige of post-punk from U2 and the Police, tempering its sing-to-the-rafters hook with a soft adult-contemporary sheen. With its dirge-like post-grunge guitar arpeggios, the cavernous Kid LAROI team-up “Unstable” shows the extent to which artists like Juice WRLD, Post Malone, and 24kGoldn have nudged SoundCloud rap’s rock-adjacent hybrids onto pop’s current menu. Situated in sequence at the center of the tracklist, the Fike duet “Die For You,” “Hold On,” and “Somebody” delve into the synth-powered side of ’80s rock, more or less successfully drafting off the success of the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” The funky “Deserve You” rides a walloping keyboard undercurrent that reminds me of Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” without chillwave’s implied ironic distance, while the busily skittering “Ghost” sometimes bottoms out into strummy acoustic reverie.
Not that Justice is a rock album in any significant capacity. Bieber seizes his guest features as opportunities for stylistic roaming, whether borrowing Chance The Rapper’s gospel-infected hip-hop on the smash hit “Holy,” returning to Skrillex’s digital dancehall wavelength alongside Burna Boy on “Loved By You,” or tapping into a more warmly organic form of R&B on “Peaches,” a posse cut with Daniel Caesar and Giveon that looks to be the album’s next breakout track. It’s a bit jarring to hear the new squeaky-clean version of Bieber bragging about his weed supply and describing his hallowed spouse as a “badass bitch,” but the song’s loose, easygoing neo-soul vibe is hard to deny. And on the the breathless dance-pop track “Love You Different,” he even taps into the exhilaration of the best Purpose tracks, the kind of thrill that has been lacking in his varied but largely toothless body of work since then. Bieber remains a masterfully agile tenor, able to deftly whisper or belt out a melody depending on the needs of the song. Still, the way he now interacts with a broader slate of pop trends is not so different from what Maroon 5 have been serving up for two decades. And as with Adam Levine’s band, the resulting songs can sometimes sound too militantly M.O.R. to love wholeheartedly, especially for those put off by Bieber’s shtick.
That said, there are a few moments on Justice that burst through the smooth professionalism to elicit a visceral reaction. At least one of them is decidedly positive, and unsurprisingly it’s one of the few moments when he snaps out of his lovestruck trance for a moment to try something different. On the album-closing ballad “Lonely,” Bieber gets real and raw about his experience growing up in the spotlight. “And everybody saw me sick/ And it felt like no one gave a shit/ They criticized the things I did as an idiot kid,” he laments against sparse production by Blanco and Finneas, brother and producer to Bieber’s pal Billie Eilish, who knows a few things about the alienation that accompanies teenage pop stardom. “What if you had it all/ But nobody to call?/ Maybe then you’d know me,” Bieber continues, “‘Cause I’ve had everything/ But no one’s listening/ And that’s just fuckin’ lonely.” It all builds to a powerful, simple refrain in which he dejectedly cries out, “I’m so lonely,” modulating his voice into something like the world’s saddest yodel.
On the other hand, it’s hard to listen to opening track “2 Much” without cackling. Musically, the song is a stunner, a glassy piano mirage produced by Skrillex that becomes a gorgeous hall of mirrors for Bieber’s voice. But when he breathily intones, “Don’t want to close my eyes, I’m scared I’d miss too much/ Don’t want to fall asleep, I’d rather fall in love,” the flashbacks to Aerosmith’s Armaggedon anthem start flooding in. And why oh why is part of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech tacked onto the beginning of a song that has nothing to do with the fight against racism, at the start of an album that rarely if ever touches on social justice issues? King’s oration later returns on the “MLK Interlude,” a deeply random interjection that harshly clashes with the rest of the record. Maybe Bieber’s intentions were pure, but between those samples and the album title — with graphic design that has drawn a cease-and-desist from the French dance producers Justice — it comes across like Bieber trying to piggyback on the current civil rights resurgence, shoehorning some profundity and broadened perspective into a decidedly self-focused collection of songs. On one hand, Justice is a strong enough album to survive these missteps. On the other hand, LOL. It seems like this time Justin Bieber was the one confused about what kind of album he was making.
After weeks of stasis, we have entered a new phase of Hot 100 upheaval. After Drake ended Olivia Rodrigo’s streak last week, Cardi B has surged to the top of the chart with “Up” this week, becoming her fifth #1 song. That extends her record for most Hot 100 #1s among female rappers. Here’s a weird stat that says a lot about how the charts work right now: Per Billboard, “Up” is the first song to hit #1 without debuting at #1 since 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” back in October.
Rising to #2 in its second week is “Leave The Door Open” by the new Bruno Mars x Anderson .Paak project Silk Sonic. Like “Up,” the song presumably got a boost from being performed at the Grammys. Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” is at #3, followed by last week’s chart champion, Drake’s “What’s Next,” at #4. The Weeknd claims #5 and #6 with “Save Your Tears” and “Blinding Lights,” respectively — the latter’s record-extending 54th week in the top 10. Rounding out the top 10 are Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating,” the aforementioned “Mood,” and two more Drake songs: the Lil Baby collab “Wants And Needs” at #9 and the Rick Ross linkup “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” at #10.
Over on the Billboard 200, Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album spends a remarkable 10th straight week at #1 with 69,000 equivalent album units but only 4,000 in sales. Billboard points out that it’s one of only three albums to spend their first 10 weeks atop the chart, joining Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Whitney Houston’s Whitney. It also continues to accumulate the most weeks at #1 since Drake’s Views spent 13 weeks atop the chart in 2016.
After Pop Smoke at #2, Dua Lipa at #3, and the Weeknd at #4 comes a #5 debut for Giveon’s When It’s All Said and Done… Take Time. The R&B singer’s debut tallied 32,000 units, 30,000 of them via streaming. Pooh Shiesty is at #6, followed by Lil Baby at #7 and Lil Durk at #8. Rob Zombie’s The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy debuts at #9 with 28,000 units and 26,000 in sales, and Taylor Swift’s folklore closes out the top 10.
Ingrid Michaelson & Zayn – “To Begin Again”
I enjoyed Zayn’s pivot away from this kind of adult contemporary fare on his last album, but if he had to do a power ballad duet, this one’s pretty good.
Breland – “Cross Country” (Feat. Mickey Guyton)
This Breland guy has great taste in collaborators. First he got Sam Hunt on his transcendent “My Truck” remix, and now he’s got this a duet with “Black Like Me” balladeer Mickey Guyton. Unfortunately, “Cross Country” veers basic where “My Truck” steered unusual. The chance of a radio hit with this seems higher, but sounding more like Dan + Shay is not the move.
J Balvin – “Tu Veneno”
At this point Balvin is in that Drake zone where I will passively enjoy pretty much anything he releases even when it seems like he’s on autopilot.
SHAED & Two Feet – “Part Time Psycho”
This is neither as instantly engaging as SHAED’s breakthrough hit “Trampoline” nor Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho,” the song evoked by the title “Part Time Psycho.” But it’s also a lot more interesting than a lot of the garbage that works its way down the alt-rock-to-Top-40 pipeline. I love that surf rock guitar that comes in at the end.
Addison Rae – “Obsessed”
Our founder Scott Lapatine describes Addison Rae as an “OG TikTok star,” a distressing phrase to think about. Apparently people love to hate her, but her first foray into pop music would be decent if it wasn’t preaching such an off-putting version of self-love.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Britney Spears is reportedly considering a tell-all interview with Oprah. [Harpers Bazaar]
- Migos teased Culture 3 with a snippet of a new song. [Instagram]
- In related news, Saweetie confirms she and Quavo broke up. [Page Six]
- Karol G & Anuel AA reportedly broke up too. [Univision]
- Billie Eilish unveiled her new hair. [Instagram]
- Meghan Trainor will star in a sitcom as part of a new deal with NBC. [Billboard]
- Katy Perry has reportedly booked a Vegas residency. [Billboard]
- Justin Bieber did a Tiny Desk Concert. [YouTube]
- Cardi B clapped back at Candace Owens after the conservative commenter criticized her “WAP” performance at the Grammys. [Twitter]
- Topps removed an insensitive BTS card from Garbage Pail Kids’ latest Grammy parody pack. It depicted the South Korean pop stars “as bruised and bandaged caricatures in a game of Whac-A-Mol.” [Billboard]
- Sam Smith released a cover of “Time After Time” recorded at Abbey Road Studios. [YouTube]
- Blackpink’s ROSÉ did her new solo song “On The Ground” on Fallon. [YouTube]
- Nick Jonas released a video for “This Is Heaven.” [YouTube]
- Lizzo is casting full-figured models and dancers for an upcoming Amazon TV project. [Instagram]
- Jacob Collier, who recently became the first British artist to win a Grammy for each of his first four albums, announced a 2022 world tour. [Jacob Collier]