Justin Bieber has not learned his lesson. After releasing his most recent album Justice, Justin received backlash for using clips of MLK speeches to add the illusion of activism to an album which was ostensibly just full of love songs to his wife.
Despite repurposing Martin Luther King Jr. speeches in a vague overture to social awareness, Justice failed to actually say anything meaningful. The record was admittedly his best since Purpose, but the haphazard combination of love songs and pseudo-activism was problematic at best and willfully ignorant at worst.
After a year where demands to acknowledge racism focused on deeper engagement and structural reckonings, Justin’s meaningless bastardizations of MLK speeches feel especially useless. What were we supposed to glean from them, Justin? And what, now, are we supposed to do with his Easter release — a gospel EP which moves from afrobeats to acoustic guitars and is yet another one of Bieber’s vapid attempts at “changing the world?”
Justin’s new EP Freedom, released shortly after Easter, is a gospel album which sounds like it was written on his notes app in the hours between a Hillsong service and a Drake concert. The EP mixes his exaltations to the Lord with styles ranging from afrobeats to rapping braggadocious rapping about his success.
While some of the songs are directly devotional, the full scope of Freedom is, unfortunately, broader. “We are searching for the answers,” Justin sings in the opening lines, and spends the EP on a journey to find it. His journey takes us along with him on a parade of egoism disguised as religiosity. Think Kanye West’s Sunday Services and subsequent gospel album Jesus Is King, but not even as artistically admirable.
Everything you need to know about the EP is apparent from its cover art (or lack thereof): The word “Freedom” written on a notes app page and nothing else except the top of the screen showing that his phone was on the charger, almost dead, and it was 3am. If the album was written on a phone in the middle of the night, that’s where it should have stayed.
Though Justice‘s flaw was Bieber’s self-aggrandizing attempt to boil down the year’s calls for activism into his first name, the songs themselves were solid. Freedom has no such redeeming qualities.
Justice came with an Instagram caption which was a PR marvel. The post explained Justin’s conceptual goals with Justice, but the actual album fell short.
Justin said: “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. This is me doing a small part. My part. I want to continue the conversation of what justice looks like so we can continue to heal.”
Freedom doesn’t even attempt to explain itself, so we are left to unravel it as it comes. And it comes to us a mess.
The first song on the album, the title track “Freedom,” features Justin singing with hints of an island accent to a stripped down afrobeats track. Like other white boys before him like (read: Chet Hanks), Justin is taking on cadences and accents as aesthetics to bolster his credibility. Even Drake has been accused of being a culture vulture for this very thing.
Justin featured afrobeat songs on Justice too and, while both times he has featured actual afro-artists on said tracks, his eagerness to prove his artistic prowess using traditionally Black sounds doesn’t sit right. After lamenting that Changes wasn’t considered an R&B album by the 2021 Grammys, while he was nominated in the pop category and other artists (particularly Black artists) were fighting for any sort of recognition, his accumulation of sounds feels like a desperate attempt to branch out.
In context, it also doesn’t sit right that the song includes the lyrics, “Freedom / Don’t it feel good.” His resurrection day track is ostensibly is talking about a kind of religious freedom, or a more existential freedom, but as a rich white man, glomming onto a song inspired by Black music styles in a time of increased white patriarchal violence and celebrating the fruit of freedom feels ignorant.
The second song, “All She Wrote,” is a melodic rap song which sounds like a mix between a knock-off Drake song and a sermon. Justin goes from singing about his own journey to pontificating about the problems with the world and back, featuring incoherent lyrics such as, “I can’t stand the pain I see on TV / Jealous ’cause they wanna be me / Damn it man, this life ain’t easy.”
In the same verse, Justin acknowledges the suffering of people outside of himself, then moves on to proclaiming just how difficult his life is despite people’s jealousy. His lack of self-awareness and his shallow comparisons between his struggles and other people’s struggles culminate in the final song of the album, where Justin answers the questions he poses about the world.
“Afraid to Say” feels like Easter Sunday, with Justin is on the pulpit preaching about how the world would be a better place if we all just willed ourselves into freedom and ended cancel culture.
The song is a confessional guitar ballad, which sacrifices melodic cohesion for an emotional tell-all which, after an album rollout featuring videos amounting to not much more than poverty p*rn and dangerous distillation of real issues, Justin actually says something, and he chooses … cancel culture.
Justin sings: “What have we done with society? / When everybody’s getting canceled / And can’t there be room for maturity? /’Cause writing ’em off is not the answer.”
Somehow, in the same twisted logic exhibited in the preceding songs in the EP, Justin positions himself as the pinnacle of maturity here. Like a broken record of every other celebrity with problematic pasts, Justin thinks that today’s world is failing because he can’t say what he wants to say without criticism.
It’s fitting that, despite the outtakes about civil disobedience and injustice — which someone else on his team undoubtedly selected for his album from MLK tapes, because I doubt Justin sifted through vintage Civil Rights tapes himself — what Justin thinks is most wrong with the world is cancel culture.
On Freedom, Justin finally says what he has to say — but he should have just kept it to himself. Maybe it’s because he notoriously hasn’t used his phone since lockdown, or because the idea that anyone who says a negative word about him is automatically a hater, or because of the army of yes-people surrounding him who make him think that everything he touches is gold, but somehow Justin missed the major criticisms of Justice and has seemingly learned nothing from the pleas from fans to rethink those MLK outtakes.
Instead of interrogating his use of actual activism to stand in for any action on his own part, Justin chooses to respond to critics by positioning himself as the victim. Because apparently the oppression, the true injustice, is that Justin Bieber is not allowed to make mistakes.
However, Justin has been given so much leeway to make mistakes. Each of his albums since Believe has been some sort of comeback album, some sort of plea for forgiveness for a phase of his life in which he made mistakes. The public has forgiven Justin time and time again. His continued career growth since his debut in 2009 is proof — not every teen star still has the relevance and widespread mainstream appeal that Justin does.
But Justin’s unwillingness to learn from the valid criticism of his meaningless gestures towards activism show that he is more interested in proving his good intent than actually evaluating his impact.