The rise of Joji and mainstream popularity of ‘sad boi’ culture

‘Give me reasons we should be complete
You should be with him, I can’t compete
You looked at me like I was someone else, oh well’

– Joji, “Slow Dancing in the Dark”

“Slow Dancing in the Dark” is a standout track off Joji’s newly released album – BALLADS 1, which is also the biggest song of his career thus far. The dejected, isolating atmosphere of the track perfectly encapsulates the abandonment of an old flame. The sedative keyboard playing paired with the heartbreaking crooning by Joji himself – where he lays his emotions bare through his voice – are both haunting and alluring. The perfect recipe for a depressing evening contemplation.

Joji – real name George Miller, occupies a lane that few artists do. One that prioritizes the formulation of a particular mood (in this case, being very sad) than providing a cohesive artistic narrative. Fortunately, it is a lane that is adored by many. Through his proficient musical talent and keen eye for somber aesthetics, Joji admirably leads the way of the recent emo R&B resurgence.

 

 

Formerly known as Filthy Frank, Miller strived in his career as Youtuber. Rules mattered little to him as he continuously pushed social and moral boundaries through his use of the persona to entertain his audiences. Right up till his retirement of the character, Miller remained an outsider, an anomaly that somehow found success despite the odds that were stacked against him.

Miller first dipped his toes in music through the character of Pink Guy – an extension of his Filthy Frank persona. In his debut album – Pink Season, the enjoyment of the record heavily relied on shock value and low-brow humor. Yet the production present showcased Miller’s latent passion in music. Despite being overshadowed by his offensive jokes, much of the tracks that were self-produced by Miller himself are surprisingly versatile, showcasing his range both as a producer and musician.

 

 

Eventually, Miller retired Pink Guy and transitioned into serious music with ‘Joji’, exchanging the absurdly aggressive raps for lo-fi mellow singing that we have come to know him for. His follow-up project, the In Tongues EP, was critically acclaimed by renowned music sites such as Pitchfork and Pigeons & Planes. He proved that he could make good music, his next challenge was then to break into the music industry as a legitimate musician. To distance himself from Filthy Frank and be taken seriously as an artist.

 

‘It was not only a transition of career but in my life too. Now I feel as if it was a rebirth, and I get to start fresh, and I get to leave this bad stuff behind.’

Joji on his In Tongues EP

 

Unfortunately, the act of YouTubers attempting a career shift into music is seen with extreme skepticism. Often treated by the public as a cash-grab or last ditch effort at relevancy, rather than an artistic extension of their public persona. Additionally, Joji – born and raised in Japan, once again finds himself as the outlier, as he dives head first into an industry that hasn’t been the most welcoming to artists of Asian descent (save for BTS).

By aligning himself with 88Rising, the label best known for its representation of Asians within hip-hop and R&B, Joji was able to set himself up with the perfect platform to prepare for his breakthrough in the mainstream. Alongside labelmates such as Rich Brian and Higher Brothers, Joji is able to fully embrace both his Asian heritage and his Western upbringing. As one of the figureheads of the label, eyes were on him to deliver on the musical potential that many have seen in him since his Filthy Frank days.

And he very much did.

BALLADS 1 reached #3 on the Billboard 200 and Joji became the first ever Asian artist to sit atop the Hip-Hop/R&B charts. Nearly producing every song on the album himself, Miller doubled-down and improved on the smooth intoxicating crooning from In Tongues while also expanding his range with upbeat songs such as “TEST DRIVE” and “CAN’T GET OVER YOU”. Not only did his make a successful leap in his transition, but he also proved that his sound had mainstream viability.

 

 

Far more commercially accessible than a Lil Peep or Lil Tracy, and having more commonalities with the zeitgeist of rap than punk-rock bands of the 2000s; Joji is the culmination of 2018 teenage angst. In a generation that unhealthily obsesses about depression – whether genuine or ironic, it creates a society of individuals that desire to be left alone, but at the same time longing to be part of a community that they can identify with.

As a former YouTuber, it can be said that young people claim a kind of ‘ownership’ over him, due to his immense presence and influence within a medium that dictated their adolescent growth. Paired with the themes of heartbreak and melancholia prevalent from his music down to how he presents himself, Joji channels the need to be unhappy of today’s youth into his music. It presents Joji with the status of an ‘underdog’, even if his most watched Pink Guy video far exceeds the combined lifetime views of most indie artists. His attempt to transition into mainstream music became a worthy cause for fans to rally behind, especially when his content seemed tailor-made for them.

Though still too early to tell if Joji’s sound will be the birth of a new trend in mainstream music, his meteoric rise to fame cannot be anymore understated. The ‘sad boi’ aesthetic may not be for everyone, but it cannot be denied that Joji deserves our respect for leaving his bread and butter behind in search for greener pastures. If his success now is any indicator, George Miller has the potential to be a major player in the future of R&B. Joji is here for the long term.

 

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