Going from being the provocative Internet comedian responsible for popularizing “Harlem Shake” videos to being taken seriously as a sad boy R&B artist sounds like an impossible task. So, clearly, it goes without saying that Joji has seen one of the biggest career transformations in recent times. Formerly knowns as YouTube comedian FilthyFrank, it was only early last year that he dropped his shock comedy shtick in favour of pursuing music seriously. In spite of the odds, Joji has managed to seamlessly make the transition.
His first EP, In Tongues, is a collection of bleak lyrics buried beneath lo-fi beats that make for easy listening. While the EP is by no means bad, some found it was only worth leaving on rotation for the sake of having background noise. In Tongues is simple, plain and generic; listening to it front to back feels like listening to the same song a few times in a row. It feels like anyone could have made it, not the creative mind fans had become attuned to since Joji’s YouTube days. Regardless, his already loyal fanbase stayed strong and looked forward to watching him come into his own sound instead of lamenting over what could have been. Now, they have an answer in the form of Joji’s first full length album, Ballads 1.
Ballads 1 sounds like a collection of singles more than a cohesive album, but somehow, it works. It’s a clear exploration of Joji’s capabilities that expands greatly on the In Tongues aesthetic as Joji makes an effort to find his own unique sound. Most of the album is produced by Joji himself, featuring his usual lo-fi R&B sprinkled with hints of alternative rock, hip hop and experimentally gritty distortion that sometimes pops up in the fashion of a horror movie jumpscare.
The latter is noticeable on the opening track, “Attention”, starting things off on a bold note. The purposely muddy mastering – while likely jarring for some – is what saves the short and otherwise simple song from being forgettable. “Attention” is In Tongues Joji with a twist – a striking rawness layered over an otherwise basic beat, announcing his return to be something you’ve never heard from him before.
This is a common theme on Ballads 1. As he begins to fall into a sound that’s uniquely Joji, we’re treated to a brand new confidence that wasn’t all there yet on prior releases. Attention drifts into Slow Dancing in the Dark, an exploration of Joji’s vocal range never heard before nor even expected. The emotion in his voice propels this song into one of the album’s highest points, especially when working in tandem with a glittery instrumental that creates a build up to a powerful chorus.
The addictive and catchy “No Fun” follows suit – it is the most accessible song on the album. It’s bouncy, danceable and upbeat – three descriptors I can’t place to another song in Joji’s entire catalogue, even individually. This is also one of his few selections of lyrics that aren’t heartbreaking or self-deprecating, delivered with a naturally self-assured cadence. Somehow, this all manages to remain true to Joji’s sound while delivering a whole new side of his music. If Joji plays his cards right, “No Fun” could be the song that launches him to consistent radio play; at the least, it should be making an appearance on every summer playlist next year.
Overall, there are more high points on the album than low ones. “R.I.P.”, a collaboration with Trippie Redd, is a repetitive and bland showcase of his guest performer more than a Joji song, but it’s the only one worthy of a complete skip during further listens to the album.
Other highlights include “Why Am I Still in LA”, an initially demure song that suddenly breaks into a bizarre but weirdly fitting moment of angsty garage rock and “Yeah Right”, a clear evolution of the In Tongues sound that offers classic Joji heartache delivered in a way that’s easy to digest.
A willingness to experiment and explore every facet of his identity is what lead Joji from being an Internet clown to a serious musician in the first place. Ballads 1 may not be perfectly polished, but it’s a big step up from Joji’s prior work and a clear indicator only good things are to come from now on.