How viable is the transition from YouTube stardom to mainstream music success? While controversial stars such as the Paul brothers have expanded their vlogging brand into the musical sphere, Joji is unique among the masses of “content creators” turned performers. Formerly known under the Pink Guy or FilthyFrank moniker, the Joji musical project shares no similarities with its now dormant YouTube counterparts. Joji’s release of the “In Tongues” EP in 2017 and his signing to the up and coming 88rising label signalled his full commitment to this new project.
While his journey had been unique, Joji’s early musical output was not. Fusing contemporary strains of alternative R&B and lo-fi Hip Hop, “In Tongues” was a relatively nondescript and low-key musical endeavor in which Joji failed to distinguish himself artistically. Despite the low impact of his music, Joji maintained and grew his audience, his exposure reaching a peak during the summer of 2018 with his appearance on the 88rising collaborative album alongside artists such as Rich Brian and even BlocBoy JB of “Look Alive” fame. Now, after a steady stream of singles and teasers, listeners are presented with Joji’s debut full length album, “Ballads 1.” While not engaging across its runtime, “Ballads 1” contains enough artistic progression and atmosphere to deliver a pleasant if forgettable experience.
The album begins with the somewhat ironically titled “Attention,” a song which seemingly works hard to discourage any such engagement on the listener’s part. The plodding, dreamy instrumental makes the song immediately blend into the background. The vocals don’t do much to salvage the track either, as Joji’s faint, nondescript delivery seals the song’s status as sonic wallpaper. “TEST DRIVE,” one of the records several singles, is similarly bland and nondescript as Joji’s falsetto pairs with faint vocal mixing to particularly forgettable results. “I’LL SEE YOU IN 40” is yet another example of a song which is weak and meandering, doing nothing notable across an underwritten four minutes.
The album does, however, have a few high points. “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” is an engaging ballad which sees an emphatic and refreshingly prominent vocal performance from Joji. While “YEAH RIGHT” and “NO FUN” retain some of the sleepier, reverb-soaked elements of the weaker songs, they succeed in having meatier production and earworm melodies. “WHY AM I STILL IN LA” is a relatively quiet lullaby which transitions into a heavy guitar and percussion passage. Moments like these are refreshing and it’s good to see Joji pushing himself compositionally, especially when most of the songs clock in at a mere two minutes and change.
On the other end of the spectrum is “RIP” (featuring Trippie Redd), which is mostly Trippie Redd proclaiming “I will die for you” in his signature moaning cadence. While the song is as underwritten as possible, Trippie’s delivery and melodies are engaging enough to carry the track. “NO FUN” is a highlight on the album, with sunny chords and a catchy hook that recall Joji’s “Peach Jam” off of the 88rising collaborative album. While this is a strong point in the tracklisting, the record as a whole suffers from a generic, distant feeling.
What the album might lack in impressionable moments it makes up for in vibe. The atmosphere of the album is moody and peaceful, but features enough percussion to make it a relatively inoffensive addition to a number of settings. This is an album best played off of a bluetooth speaker in a dorm room with three to five others, not pored over in solitude on the most advanced monitoring headphones money can buy. Because of this, the album is decent to fair. It ultimately is not memorable enough from start to finish to be truly great, but the songs for the most part are a noticeable improvement from the tracks on “In Tongues.” Songs like “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” also show a great deal of potential development for Joji if he delivers such impassioned performances on a consistent basis. For those who have enjoyed Joji’s music up until this point, “Ballads 1” is the best he’s ever sounded. Those who disliked “In Tongues” or Joji’s sound in general may still find some enjoyable material on this album, especially on those tracks which deviate from his lo-fi, muddy sound. Ultimately, “Ballads 1” is a small but meaningful step in the right direction for Joji.
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