Joji: Ballads 1 Album Review
George Miller’s nearly seven years of trolling the internet as the equal parts viral and vile YouTube personas Filthy Frank and Pink Guy were accented by his quiet SoundCloud releases as Joji. Comprised of emotional croons and lo-fi, sample-driven production, Miller’s side project eventually caught the attention of 88rising, a largely Asian music collective home to acts like Rich Brian, NIKI, and Keith Ape. A debut EP and an 88rising world tour later, Joji has seemingly cleared the leap from bizarre internet comedian to full-fledged musician, officially retiring his YouTube channel and all. Now, with all the shiny trappings of a label and a fanbase hungry for self-deprecating zingers like “Yeah Right” rather than Pink Guy’s stir fry raps, his first full-length project BALLADS 1 makes an effort to push past the confines of his bedroom walls and tedious heartache.
Joji serves as the record’s main producer, manipulating the same chain-clanking samples, tinny percussive hitches, and maudlin keyboards that drove 2017’s In Tongues EP on tracks like “WANTED U” and “XNXX.” But on BALLADS 1, Joji solicits contributions from a grip of artists that align with his cloud-rap and trap-influenced mentality, including Clams Casino, RL Grime, Ryan Hemsworth, and Shlohmo (one of his proclaimed musical idols). And as the album’s title announces, he loosely follows a simple objective: fine-tuning his sound against a style championed by the Whitney Houstons and Adeles of the pop mythology.
The ballad is a great mode for Joji. It retains the tormented intimacy of his music while elevating his approach to a more radio-friendly consistency than the runny compositions of In Tongues. The album’s second single—the self-described “new age Celine Dion”-type power ballad “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK”—is a brighter, bolder take on his usual lovesick songs about an ex moving on. Production from Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly imbues a high-fidelity clarity with harp arpeggios and synths that expand and contract around Joji’s near-yelling vocals. He flips pangs of an unrequited crush into the danceable Clams Casino-assisted “CAN’T GET OVER YOU,” dishing out both delusional and self-aware sentiments over an elastic Thundercat bassline. “I don’t have no social cues, I’m all for you,” he mumbles before delving back into a chorus that ends with the tired, toxic trope: “If I can’t have you no one can.”
Whether he’s singing about waiting for someone to desire him back on “WANTED U” or driving around, alone, feeling dead inside on “NO FUN,” Joji wallows in the tension between being the bigger person and lashing out. “Give me reasons we should be complete/You should be with him I can’t compete,” he cries on “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK”’s anthemic chorus, unable to keep his intentions straight for two consecutive lines. He’s cathartic at best and pathetic and worst, but there’s a strange comfort in his neurotic rumination. Yet outside of a few standout tracks, BALLADS 1 coasts along a lukewarm formula of sad-boy R&B. Joji relies on a driving analogy to carry the underwhelming songwriting of his RL Grime collaboration called “TEST DRIVE,” while he misses the mark with his only non-producer feature Trippie Redd as they sing through a repetitive, aimlessly morbid narrative on the Ryan Hemsworth-produced “R.I.P.”
There’s a sense that Joji is searching for peace in his life beyond failed romances and conflicted guilt. The album’s opening track “ATTENTION” is, per usual, about his unfulfilled expectations in a relationship, but it’s also about the expectations he places on himself. “I don’t wanna die so young/Got so much to do,” he casually throws between lines about his insecurities and neediness. In the context of the neurological condition behind his departure from YouTube—which causes stress-induced seizures and requires he take daily medication—his preoccupation with mortality feels earned. Along with his medical scare, feeling “stuck” as the clownish content creator of his own making drove him to a point of drinking too much before he decided to take a chance on a new career. Throughout the despair and negative self-talk, there’s a hope underneath BALLADS 1 that Joji is closer to outrunning the immaturity of his past life.