Calling All Sadbois: Joji’s BALLADS 1
by James Ammirato
Picture a desert containing a man in different costumes, including a straitjacket, a wedding dress, and a little boy with a shotgun. Now picture a muscle car doing donuts below the man in the straitjacket, while he is suspended from the sky by a chain. This is the music video for “TEST DRIVE” by Joji, real name George Miller, patron saint of label 88rising’s R&B output. The video matches his most recent release and first full-length LP as Joji, BALLADS 1, in that there are a lot of cool images in a row, but not much substance or real meaning behind any of them.
Formerly known as Youtubers Filthy Frank and Pink Guy, Joji has now seemingly reached his final form as Joji. His first release under the moniker was November 2017’s In Tongues, a six-track EP featuring some of the most mellow and nighttime image-inducing R&B I’d heard in a long time. Though slightly one-note in style, the EP is a great example of “chill” music, something you can put on when hanging out with a few people as nice background. Even though I wasn’t floored by it completely, I love how the laid-back style hits the ear, to the point where there are few instances that playing it would be inappropriate.
With the release of singles “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” and “YEAH RIGHT,” his sound seemed to only be more fully realized, using more engaging production techniques and more noticeable vocals. For these reasons, I was excited to hear Miller’s latest iteration put out a full-length album.
The LP starts with what I think of as an intro track, “ATTENTION.” Featuring production from Joji himself, the beat consists of a simple piano line with little variation and a lo-fi drum beat, which evolves into a distorted bassline in the chorus, practically clipping the mix. The production is simple but directionless and is an odd choice to put at the front, especially leading into “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK,” a song that on its own is much more fully formed. Although the song is in itself a decent intro, I believe it serves the purpose best of leading into an album that matches in mediocrity.
From here, the album dives right into “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” and “TEST DRIVE,” the two most popular singles released. This album arrangement takes the ideas that were created for commercial purposes and getting listens and shoves them right at the front of the tracklist, which unfortunately plays right into the short attention span many listeners have nowadays. It takes out a lot of incentive to keep listening to the album as it was meant to be listened to, in full and provides an early out for those who don’t feel the need to hear the rest of the album’s cuts. Though not my favorites in the tracklist, I do believe these two are some of the more complete songs to be had, and the synth modulation style production from Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift does wonders on “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK.” In addition, I believe the project really only consists of songs that are fully formed and half-baked, with no middle ground whatsoever. In the tracklist, the two are mingled together, like “WANTED U” going into “CAN’T GET OVER YOU,” which heads back into “YEAH RIGHT,” another fully formed song. I believe that if the two groups had been lumped together, it would have made the album a much more enjoyable and listenable experience, whether it be two sides with differing feels or the full formed tracks sandwiched between two groups of shorter tracks. How it is laid out, however, leaves the listener practically disoriented, with the vibe switching every three minutes.
Highlights in the tracklist include “WHY AM I STILL IN LA” and “COME THRU” both produced by WeDidIt cofounder Shlohmo, with the former featuring additional production from D33J. The former is my favorite cut from the album, featuring starkly contrasting production in the verses, with xylophone and deep 808 bass hits being the main focus points. The first chorus leads into a noise buildup so pleasing to the ear that even those who dislike the noise genre would find it appealing. It completely drops off in about 30 seconds and we are led right into the second verse. My only gripe with the song is that the same noise interlude never happens twice, but that was clearly Shlohmo’s intention. “COME THRU” features one of the better chorus melodies on the album, Joji’s falsetto is a brilliant contrast to Shlohmo’s deep bass and light piano production, as well as sparse drums with plenty of reverb.
Another highlight is “WANTED U,” one of the longer tracks on the project at just over four minutes. Featuring some of the better production on the record, Joji provides us with a tinny beat that quickly morphs into a guitar lead that would be heinous if not for the context it’s given in. As for the guitar solo, I believe the song could’ve done without it, ironic as it may be. If the song had simply gone into an instrumental break, the transition into “CAN’T GET OVER YOU” would’ve been much more seamless, yet we are hurdled into the interlude with nothing but a cutout, leaving us disoriented.
Though BALLADS 1 features some good production quality and some very nice features, many of these positive attributes are outweighed by negative ones. As much as I love the chilled out attitude, it’s almost impossible for me to get around some of the cringiest lyrics I’ve heard come out of Miller, including his days as Pink Guy. At least then, he was being ironic, but on BALLADS 1 there are hardly any lyrics that don’t denote the worst kind of self-pity in regards to “getting the girl.” Lines like “Girl, would it kill you just to show a little bit of attention?” and “When you cry, you waste your time / Over boys you never liked / Can you not be so obvious?” make me think Joji is pandering to incels and “nice guys,” people that should really never be pandered to. On “NO FUN,” the entire first verse is merely Joji resenting his friends for not being as available to hang out with him as they were before, simply because he’s rich and they’re not. In “R.I.P.” (featuring an atrociously repetitive Trippie Redd verse) lines like “Tryna find your love, put your love above / Baby all we need is trust, no one know but us” completely ruin the song with their utter lack of meaning.
This collection of shitty lyrics leads me to believe that either Joji is just a bad lyricist or that he had no intention of people actually paying attention to what he was saying. The latter honestly makes more sense to me, since the entire vibe of the album is that it should be played towards the end of a party when everyone is so wasted that they’re physically unable to pay attention to what’s being said.
Another thing I think BALLADS 1 suffers from greatly is somewhat blatantly ripping off artists. It’s clear to me that Miller is a fan of artists like Corbin, Bladee, Lil Peep, and even Post Malone to some extent. While it’s obviously important to have influences that guide you in your own creativity, I find that Joji’s vocal style and delivery are simply too similar to his contemporaries, and I believe he should take time to develop his newfound talents, because while he’s a good singer, his cadence and attitude while singing hardly changes throughout the record, making songs blend together and harder to remember, and thus the album is easily forgettable.
Though BALLADS 1 is on the surface a fully realized first album from an artist that might as well have been born again into the music scene, glaring issues like bad lyrics and poor tracklist flow, not to mention the intense similarity to other artists, ruin a majority of the album for me. What I believe happened was that 88rising wanted to get Joji’s first full-length out this year, alongside the likes of Rich Brian, and as such, the album was rushed to the nth degree. This is increasingly obvious to me when producers like Clams Casino and Jam City appear on the same project. With solid cuts like “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” and “WHY AM I STILL IN LA,” it’s clear to me that Joji has the ability to create fully formed pieces, but the overarching project of BALLADS 1 does not reflect that ability to the extent that I believe it could. I remain a fan, but until his next project, I have no choice but to hold my breath.