3.0 / 5.0

Joji boasts one of the most unique paths to a successful music career in recent memory. Born George Miller in Japan, he rose to massive YouTube fame with edgy, provocative, and occasionally repulsive videos as the characters Filthy Frank and Pink Guy. All the while, he was tinkering behind the curtain with inky, alternative R&B. In 2017, he made the switch to “serious music” full time, and after dropping the bleak and bloody EP In Tongues, Joji has returned with BALLADS 1, his debut full-length.

On In Tongues, Joji’s voice was steeped in reverb and often used more for textural effect than as true topline, but he’s clearly trying a multitude of vocal deliveries on Ballads 1. He shows a knack for brisk, descending melodies on “XNXX” and “CAN’T GET OVER YOU” where his vocals take center stage. His falsetto is most effective when deployed in short doses like the pre-hook on “TEST DRIVE,” but when he leans on it heavily throughout “COME THRU” it starts to sound brittle and excessively reedy.

Though his sound is often bleak and maudlin, some of the most effective moments on Ballads 1 are uptempo. The Clams Casino collaboration “CAN’T GET OVER YOU” is a highlight, with a wormy bass line from Thundercat and bright blips of guitar and pizzicato strings. The bouncy instrumental balances out gleefully unhinged lyrics from Joji (“Tell me more, I got a box cutter with your name on it / Tell me more I can't stay this long on the same topic”), and the manic character he’s playing is alluring in a Patrick Bateman or Amy Elliott Dunne kind of way.

Another of the record’s strongest moments is “YEAH RIGHT,” which features a cascading vocal run that exemplifies the song’s snapshot of nightlife nihilism—how brutal lows come on the heels of cathartic highs. The self-produced track also proves that Joji still has an understanding of his vocal strengths other producers haven’t quite found, as “YEAH RIGHT” features understated but catchy verses and strong melodies throughout.

BALLADS 1 is filled with impressive producers, but several of them don’t seem to know how best to utilize a unique talent like Joji. The deluxe edition of In Tongues, which featured standout remixes by Ryan Hemsworth and Medasin, showed how exciting it could be to see other artists step into Joji’s shadowy world, but the results on on Ballads are a bit more mixed.

The sludgy “WHY AM I STILL IN LA” features production from WeDidIt members Shlohmo and D33J, but the track’s lack of percussion makes it plodding, save for a bizarre, crash-heavy buildup that feels like a basement punk band vamping while it waits for its singer to make it back on stage after crowdsurfing.

Kelela collaborator Jam City works with Joji on the buzzy “NO FUN,” which is infectious, even though it winds up sounding like Porches-lite. Joji has fit surprisingly well on uptempo records like “Midsummer Madness” and “Peach Jam,” and having more sonic variety will make the moments where he chooses to go fully dark resonate more than they did on the tonally consistent but thoroughly dreary In Tongues.

Coming from a visual medium like YouTube, Joji has always put exceptional time and effort into his music videos, and certain moments on BALLADS 1 work so well as an A/V experience that it is a little jarring to hear the songs on their own. The bloody, streetlight-lit surrealism of “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” so perfectly captures the anguish and desperation of the track that its impact on the LP is a little muted.

Joji’s emphasis on visuals is a major reason to be optimistic about his music; he can clearly craft arresting, resonant scenes, and just needs to keep working on translating those into lyrics as he trends towards more opaque writing. It isn’t as much of a problem for him as it is for other artists because he’s crafted such a vivid world around his music, but Joji clearly has the creativity and wit to fill in some of the details on record, and would benefit from doing so to continue setting himself apart in a crowded alt-R&B landscape.

While guest vocalists are few and far between on Ballads 1, Joji has found an ideal partner in Trippie Redd, whose anguished, emotive voice is a perfect foil to his spacy, measured delivery on “R.I.P.” The pair previously collaborated on the kinetic Kris Wu posse cut “18,” and, after finding success yet again, they’d be wise to keep working together in the future.

BALLADS 1 closes on an especially promising note with “XNXX” being one of Joji’s strongest, most cohesive cuts to date. His lower register blends beautifully with the buzzy synths, creating a warm and enveloping texture While the lyrics are vague, they do paint an affecting portrait of an exhausted Joji, unable to find the desire to rekindle a dormant relationship. And in classic Joji fashion, there’s a fine and blurry line between crestfallen songwriting and crass humor—the track shares its name with a popular porn site.

In a late 2017 interview with Billboard, Joji described the release of In Tongues as “a rebirth.” BALLADS 1 feels like his progression into adolescence, trying a slew of different vocal styles and soundscapes to figure out what fits him best. And while it doesn’t all work flawlessly, he certainly shows enough to prove that he could make something close to classic with a few more reps.

For more on Joji, revisit our exclusive editorial and interview with the 88 rising artist here.

Joji's 'BALLADS 1' is now available to buy or stream. For more of our reviews, head here.

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