Justin Bieber is a Christian. Should we care? Sure, if he’s got something worthwhile to say on the subject in a compellingly musical way. I mean, crucifix-wearing hip-hoppers Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar are my kind of preachers, and I’ll go to church with Aretha Franklin, Bono and Al Green any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
On Easter weekend, Bieber surprise-released Freedom, a six-track testimony to God and R&B that comes fast on the heels of his chart-topping pop album Justice, released less than a month ago. The new EP is mushy, preachy and adorably earnest. It’s also mundane, the worst sin of all. Rev. Green took us to the river; Bieber brings us to a bible group in San Bernardino.
“Big up to my brother,” Bieber sings on the album-opening title track, pronouncing the last word “brudah,” as any white kid from Stratford, Ont., would. Later, against laidback tropical beats, he addresses temptation by rhyming “feelin’ the fire” with “the devil is a liar.”
There are ways to sing about religion subtly – using love as a metaphor for religion, for example, with romantic desire as a Trojan horse for spiritual yearning. Songs such as k.d lang’s Constant Craving, Hozier’s Take Me to Church and every second U2 track come to mind. Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus is about worship – of who or what being open to interpretation.
We know Bieber knows how to do this, because his 2020 single Holy (featuring Chance the Rapper) has that double meaning. On Freedom, however, we have All She Wrote, a Drake-style rap with a line from collaborator Brandon Love – “came up straight from the bottom” – that seems awfully familiar.
Bieber’s own lines are delivered from the pulpit with such conviction that even Moses is advising the pop star/zealot to “maybe dial it back a bit.”
We ain’t got no time for second guessin’
We can’t save ourselves, we need a savior
We ain’t make ourselves, we need a maker
I keep failin’ myself, I need somethin’ new
So I lay my life down, I give it all to you
Though last month’s Justice contains some of the most assured and charismatic pop of Bieber’s career, the album was marred by the awkward inclusion of samples from Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. Seeking to reinvent himself at age 27, the one-time notorious brat is trying much too hard to show his new-found maturity.
The ham-fisted repentance intensifies on Freedom. On the autobiographical We’re in This Together, the lyrics are embarrassing. Full marks for boasting during an apology (“at seventeen, I had a milli/ Women throwin’ themselves at me had me goin’ silly”), but it’s hard to take anyone seriously if they insist on rhyming “On the surface, I felt like thе man” with “But deep inside I felt deprivеd just like an empty can.”
Moreover, Bieber’s conspicuous rehabilitation comes off as self-absorbed. Bob Dylan sang that we have two choices, the devil or the Lord. Bieber? He’s not serving somebody – he’s serving himself.
Gaining my religion: Five great gospel tunes by pop artists
Alright, by Kendrick Lamar The hip hop generation’s A Change is Gonna Come, from 2015′s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Take Me To The River, by Al Green Released a year after the Stax Records star became a born-again Christian, the 1974 hit is gospel only by the broadest definition of the genre. But any song pairing baptism with teenage lust – “My sweet sixteen I would never regret” – earns an amen.
Delta Dawn, by Helen Reddy Bette Midler, Tanya Tucker and Helen Reddy all recorded it around the same time, but it was Australian who had the biggest success with the sing-along about an alliterative lady, a faded rose and a mansion in the sky.
Follow God, by Kanye West Soon after the release of his 2019 album Jesus King, Kanye West ruled, taking over the entire top 10 on the Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart. The best of the bunch? Follow God, which samples Whole Truth’s soulful Can You Lose by Following God and ends with a how-do-we-end-this-song scream.
Spirit In The Sky, by Norman Greenbaum Jehovah’s fine, but Jesus charts. The Jewish singer took 15 minutes to write the psychedelic-rock hit from 1969 that insisted it was a must to have a friend in high places.
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