Justin Bieber’s “Justice”

Listening to Justin Bieber’s new album, Justice, left me conflicted. I generally liked the songs-- there were even a few I would go so far as to say I loved-- but I couldn’t (and still can’t) get past the tone-deaf title and the voice recordings of Martin Luther King. The album opens with the song, 2 Much. We hear Dr. King’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and then Bieber, the rich, white boy, proceeds to sing a song about how much he loves his rich, white wife. Similarly, the album’s 7th track, MLK Interlude-- which is nearly 2 minutes of a speech by Dr. King-- falls between two songs about Bieber’s love and appreciation for the beautiful Hailey. Bieber’s choice to include Dr. King, then, is problematic not necessarily because Bieber is white (although this fact does bring up questions about white folks controlling the narrative of black history), but because the rest of the album has nothing to do with Dr. King, his message, his legacy, or justice at all. The album is an ode to Hailey with messages of religiosity, a sweet and loving one at that, but nothing more. In this sense, it is similar to Chance the Rapper’s 2019 album, The Big Day, an ode to the rapper’s wedding day. Chance, however, a black man and distinguished activist, doesn’t try to invoke the heavily weighted history that Bieber does. 

That said, maybe we can take the seemingly random presence of MLK quotes as Bieber’s message that no matter what, no matter how much you love your wife, racial justice is important. It’s a stretch, but I am hesitant to fully condemn Bieber given his active involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and his seeming empathic, thoughtful understanding of the extent of systemic racism in our country. “I want to use the platform to remind people that racism is evil,” Bieber wrote on Instagram in 2020. He continued, “You can’t deny that racism is ingrained in our culture.” Furthermore, Bieber has publicly acknowledged the ways in which he benefits from black culture, and vowed, “I’m not going to stop talking about [racial justice]. Ever.”

Rawiya Kameir of Pitchfork Magazine notes that “underneath the ill-advised MLK quotes, you’ll find an earnest pop album that unearths the charisma and agility that helped make Bieber a start.” The album is fun and uplifting; you can’t help but smile when you hear those sweet J-Biebz riffs. A pop album on the surface, Bieber plays with a few genres and features many different artists, from Khalid to The Kid LAROI. On Love You Different, Bieber and Burna Boy, the Nigerian-British singer and rapper, sing over a distinct afro-beat. On Die for You, Bieber and alternative singer Dominic Fike give us a pop-rock song. As I Am sounds vaguely like a Kygo song, while Off My Face--a simple ballad featuring Bieber’s voice at its best--softens the tone. With its variety, catchiness, and the sheer enjoyment many of the songs provide, I’d give the music itself an 7 out of 10. It’s not Abbey Road or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it’s Biebs--  a good time, a pleasant listen. I’d even argue that Justice competes with My World 2.0 (2009) and Purpose (2015) for Bieber’s best album. Sure, the excessive evocation of his undying love for his wife is a little cringe-worthy: “you are the only one I’ll ever love… If it’s not you it’s not anyone,” declares Bieber in the album’s penultimate track, All In. We get it Biebs--Hailey’s awesome. Ultimately, though, the charm and enjoyment the music provides, (listen to Peaches or Off My Face and try not to smile), allows us not to cringe at Bieber, but to be happy for him. 

Finally, an article about Justin Bieber is not complete without mentioning Selena Gomez at least once. Rumors have swirled that Bieber’s song Ghost, the album’s 11th track, is his final goodbye to his former love, Selena. The two have a rocky history of breakups and make-ups, and many are still wedded to the idea of them as a couple. Ghost is curious, as the 8th track on Gomez’s 2009 album A Year Without Rain is entitled “Ghost of You.” I’ll admit, Bieber has to have known that Gomez’s song existed. His own track features lyrics like, “If I can’t be close to you I’ll settle for the ghost of you,” and “Your memory is ecstasy, I miss you more than life,” leading many fans to conclude he was in fact talking about Selena. While potentially inspired by his breakup with Gomez, Bieber maintains that the song is about the more general experience of losing a loved one, whether it be to death or to a breakup. My message to those Jelena supporters is this: I loved them together too, their breakup was awful. But Biebs is happily married now, and still giving us fun, upbeat, great music. Let’s just celebrate him.