behind the music

How Justin Bieber Pivoted Back to Pop on Justice

“We literally started from scratch.” Photo: Kevin Mazur/AMA2020/Getty Images for dcp

Changes introduced the world to a new Justin Bieber. When the pop star’s first album in nearly five years arrived in February 2020, it found him as a newly married, born-again Christian. It also found Bieber diving headfirst into R&B, after the genre began driving the charts and other peers like Ariana Grande had dipped their toes as well. (It wasn’t the first time; he’d dabbled in R&B on 2013’s Journals, too, but called it a “compilation” rather than a proper release.) Maybe Bieber went a bit too far when he called out the Grammys for placing Changes in the pop category after it was submitted in R&B (not without precedent: Grande’s sweetener and thank u, next were still nominated in Pop Vocal Album, as was Kelly Clarkson’s 2017 soul pivot Meaning of Life). But as he criticized the Recording Academy, Bieber also set the stage for what was next. “To be clear, I absolutely love pop music,” he wrote in a note on social media, “it just wasn’t what I set out to make this time around.”

Bieber backed up his claim a month later when he released “Anyone,” his most undeniable pop song in years. Now, with Justice out, the turn looks even sharper. Released just 13 months after Changes, the new album positions Bieber’s R&B phase as more of a detour. Instead, Justice picks up after Purpose, which Vulture music critic Craig Jenkins recently hailed as “one of the previous decade’s finest pop projects.” But while much of Purpose diluted EDM trends into pop hits, Justice prefers the polished, synth-fueled pop-rock of the 1980s as a jumping-off point.

The biggest choruses soar in the same way good worship music does, like what you could hear at Bieber’s former church, Hillsong. Even more than Changes, Justice is a clear product of Bieber’s faith, spreading a gospel of positivity, love, and hope. He announced the album and title by tweeting a string of vague platitudes about “justice” and “healing.” “I know that I cannot simply solve injustice by making music, but I do know that if we all do our part by using our gifts to serve this planet and each other that we are that much closer to being united,” he wrote. Then upon the album’s delivery, he caught heat for using clips of two Martin Luther King Jr. speeches to introduce opener “2 Much” and as a mid-album interlude (ahead of a song called “Die for You,” about his love for wife Hailey).

It’s a lot to process from Bieber, who’s given few interviews on the new music. So to look behind the scenes of Justice, Vulture spoke to two of Bieber’s key collaborators on the album: Bieber’s band member since 2010 and current music director, Bernard “Harv” Harvey, and songwriter Gregory “Aldae” Hein. Harv co-wrote and co-produced “Somebody” and “Peaches,” while Aldae co-wrote “2 Much,” “As I Am,” “Unstable,” and “Somebody.” Both collaborators described the fast-paced, detail-oriented process behind Bieber’s sonic pivot. “It’s about making sure that this album is going to be the best album of the year,” Harv says. “Every producer and writer, we all had that same idea.”

Justice was a separate process from Changes

With Justice released so close to Changes — Bieber debuted first single “Holy” just seven months after putting Changes out — it may have looked like the album was cut from the same sessions, like Taylor Swift’s folklore sequel evermore. “The original plan was to do two albums back-to-back,” Harv says, but to keep the processes separate. “We literally started from scratch,” he adds. “We wanted Justice to have its own sound, its own identity, so we put those old songs back on the shelf.” To better establish that divide between projects, Bieber brought a number of new writers on for Justice, including Aldae. “People know Justin as a pop star,” he says of the shift. “I think he crushes the R&B, but I personally love this style of music more with him.”

The sound is rooted in live instruments and draws from rock music

In his note to the Recording Academy, Bieber specifically noted the “hip-hop drums” on Changes, a lot of which were produced on drum machines. But on Justice, Harv and Aldae say they wanted to emphasize live instrumentation, whether that meant beginning songs on piano or messing around on guitars with writer-producer Skrillex. Neither collaborator owns up to the ’80s references many listeners have pulled out, but they don’t deny that the rock influences are a throwback. Neither did Bieber when it came to “Somebody” — but he didn’t want the song to be stuck in the past, either. “He was like, ‘I want it to sound like a ’90s rock song,’” Harv says. “‘But let’s make it now.’”

That energy bleeds into live performances of the music, too. As music director, Harv leads and performs in Bieber’s backing band, We the Band, playing bass in recent performances for NPR and Good Morning America. “The way that the music is, we have to do it with the band,” he says of performing the new songs. Expect to see We the Band — which also includes longtime collaborators like guitarist Julian McGuire, drummer Devon “Stixx” Taylor, and DJ Tay James — backing Bieber up on an eventual Justice tour too. Harv especially anticipates playing “Anyone,” which he calls “a stadium-status song,” to that size of a crowd.

Bieber and his team focused on the album’s flow

The argument over whether pop music is moving away from the album form persists, but Bieber has remained focused on it. The approach pays off on Justice; critics have praised its cohesion. (Even Pitchfork called it “Bieber’s smoothest album-length statement to date.”) “It’s a format, how we track-list the album,” Harv explains of the 16 songs. “We kind of let the album grow as you listen to it.” And it does, with Bieber easing his way from slower ballads at the beginning of the album into more upbeat songs after the “MLK Interlude.”We literally sat down and listened to every song and made sure that they all sounded like they were on the same project,” Harv adds. “For me, it was kind of hard, ’cause I had way more songs that were supposed to be on the album, but it just didn’t [fit together with the sound]. That was a moment for me to be like, Okay, it’s about the full body of work.” The sessions became less about sound than a unifying spirit of the work. As Aldae puts it, “There are songs you can dance to, but I think every song makes you feel something.”

Many of the features were handpicked by Bieber (yes, including MLK)

When Bieber teased a photo of him planning the track list on social media, an impressive list of featured artists — from Khalid and Daniel Caesar to Burna Boy and Beam — caught fans’ eyes. On all the songs they worked on, Harv and Aldae said the features came from Bieber himself. With “Peaches,” Bieber switched to A&R mode right after cutting his vocals. “Like two hours later, he FaceTimed me,” Harv says. “Justin was like, ‘Yo, like I think we got one.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He was like, ‘I got Giveon on, on the feature.’” The up-and-coming R&B singer first cracked the top 40 as a feature on Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle” last year. Then, about a month later, Harv got another call. “Just how Justin is, he’ll FaceTime me out of nowhere,” he says. “He was like, ‘Hey, let’s get Daniel Caesar on it.’” Some of the other features, though, came down to the wire. Aldae notes that both Khalid’s and rapper-singer the Kid Laroi’s parts on their respective songs came in days before the album’s release.

And yes, Bieber’s feature choices also extended to Dr. King. “2 Much” opens with his famed quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King’s daughter, Bernice King, later said she approved the quote along with the album’s longer interlude, while Bieber committed to work with the King Center among other social-justice organizations. Aldae admits he didn’t plan on putting the quote in “2 Much.” “At first I was a little confused when I saw MLK in the credits,” he says. “A lot of classic albums have an insert at the beginning, something to bring you into the album. People close to me have told me there was a disconnect between those two things, but to me, it was just like, ‘Yo, welcome to my album.’ MLK, one of the greatest speakers of all time. Why not?”

Bieber wanted all his collaborators to understand the album’s meaning

While he introduced the world to the ideas behind Justice in a Twitter thread, Bieber had been thinking on them for months. In December, Bieber had a meeting with his collaborators about the meaning driving the project. “He talked about how important this album was to us, and how his name actually was translated to justice [from Latin], and how important it was for him to make an impact, and how he was in this high position. He was calling on us to help be the vessel for what he wanted to channel into the world,” Aldae says. “He was very vulnerable with us about wanting to put that goodness into the songs.”

Some fans saw a discrepancy between Bieber’s intended messaging and the content of the songs on the album, many of which seem to be about his relationship with his wife. But to Harv, they go hand in hand. “If you listen to the words, it’s putting love back in,” he says. “It sounds like big pop, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s very simple love songs.” Having worked with Bieber for a decade, Harv says he saw the album coming from a genuine place. “Where he is in his life is probably the best I’ve ever seen him. Like, how he is right now: his mental [health], his relationship with Hailey, his career, and just his overall happiness,” he says. “He put all of that into this album.”

How Justin Bieber Pivoted Back to Pop on Justice