Justin Bieber, "Justice" (Def Jam)

In language about as frank (and un-self-pitying) as any teen-pop survivor has ever deployed, Bieber's hit ballad "Lonely" nails the experience of finding yourself at the center of a heartthrob-industrial complex with little interest in your personal development.

Released last fall mid-pandemic, he tune is one of the finest vocal performances in Bieber's career and a complete story that only he could tell. Which makes it disappointing to discover that "Justice" abandons that sharp dramatic ambition. With 16 tracks in a wide variety of styles and moods, Bieber's centerless sixth studio album is noisy and grab-baggy in a way that once was typical for him (and other major pop acts) yet now registers as shallow and unsatisfying.

His commercial rationale seems clear if misguided. In early 2020, after a hiatus during which he focused on his mental health and got married, Bieber released "Changes," a collection of low-key and winningly goofy R&B songs dedicated to his wife, model Hailey Baldwin. Creatively, the album was a success but didn't do Bieber's usual sales numbers. So here's "Justice" with a little bit of something for everyone: acoustic balladry, '80s pop-rock, gleaming EDM, a church-group singalong and airy blue-eyed soul.

Bieber's scattershot approach on "Justice" feels out of sync with the rest of modern pop. Part of what makes the 27-year-old appear old-fashioned is that the white male pop star has simply receded from view in an era defined by hip-hop. And those who've stuck around — Harry Styles, for example — create whole ecosystems for their fans in a way that Bieber mostly forgoes on this album.

"Justice" has highlights, including "Die for You," a snappy new wave duet with Dominic Fike; "Peaches," an easygoing R&B jam featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon; and "Ghost," with its vaguely creepy emo sentiment.

As a whole, though, the album shortchanges the hard-won storytelling talent that Bieber has cultivated. That "idiot kid" from "Lonely" didn't suffer for that, did he?

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times

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