Joji w/ rei brown and SavageRealm @ UCCU Center 09.09
The music behind the R&B, dream pop songbird Joji is as complex as the artist himself. Joji is one facet of the human known as George Miller, sharing a vessel with Filthy Frank and Pink Guy—questionable internet sketch icons to those of us who had unsupervised access to desktop computers. The shift he created between his public personas in the last five years has carried into his music career, showcasing lofty, haunting vocals, effortless production and an ever-present tinge of apathy in his lyrics—the darkness that was present in his comedy sketches is interwoven throughout his songs.
His compositions are instant earworms, gaining massive popularity on apps like TikTok, with most of his songs in the hundred-million streamsphere. There’s a short list of musicians that elicit emotion from the listener as much as Joji does in his discography, with chart-topping songs such as “Glimpse of Us,” which heartbreakingly details being stuck on a failed relationship, and I’ve also seen the chorus inserted onto unsettling Instagram Reels featuring insanely overweight cats. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this show, nor did I think I could form a perception around Joji. This compelled me to scoot closer to the stage among a cacophony of Gen-Z “Sad Boi”/”Hypebeast” hybrids.
The lineup for this segment of his SMITHEREENS Tour included fellow 88RISING labelmates rei brown and SavageRealm, who served as a comedian more than a musical act, with absurd slapstick humor which equally confused and entertained me. The stage dimmed pale blue, as the audience chanted for Joji to make an entrance, while a beat pulsed in the heart of the sold-out arena. An indiscernible man jogged on stage wearing a baseball hat, black joggers and a t-shirt, reminiscent of an ex-boyfriend of mine whose meal of choice was Hot Pockets. The man zoomed around the stage like a concussed bumblebee, commanding the audience to “make some noise” while inserting a few choice expletives. A sea of phones flooded the standing room, forcing my view to come from an iPhone 11 screen in front of me. My friend that had met me at the show confirmed my befuddlement by asking, “Is that him? Is that Joji?”
His songs were performed with a drummer, guitarist, giant LED screens depicting some serious mind-bending visuals and, my favorite, a man with an electronic drum pad who played soundbites, like the notorious Vine snippet “bruh,” in addition to the puns and antics that ensued throughout Joji’s set. The smoke filling the stage and clearing between the onset of his ballads made me feel like I was watching a bunch of college dudes attempt one-handed handstands, dare each other to eat Filet ‘O Fish and doodle Sharpie tattoos on each other (all of this actually happened) after hotboxing their mom’s Honda Civic. Joji included the audience on these antics, creating a parasocial relationship that further tangled the duality he has publicly created between his art and his comedy. I couldn’t ever tell if he was actually singing or if he was screaming over his songs as excitedly as the audience was.
The song that illustrates this concept the best is “Gimme Love,” from his album Nectar. The song begins with a fast-tempo, danceable, catchy beat along with quintessential lyrics that teeter the line of avoidant insecurity and codependent instability. The audience jumped in place, arms flying to the beat, with Joji parading on a vacant stage. Halfway through, the song dramatically slows down and masterfully layered melodies stream over soulful piano and three repetitive acoustic guitar notes—the drastic simplicity is almost theatrical, falling heavy on the audience’s heartstrings. This was the first time I could hear his voice, and it struck a chord in me as he sorrowfully belted out in perfect pitch, “Everyone’s looking for someone to hold / But I can’t let you go.”
Joji’s wild card of an encore consisted of a rendition of “Slow Dancing In The Dark,” taken a half-step down from the original key, which expressed his unadulterated skill as a vocalist for the first time throughout the entire set. It was raw and stripped in such a way that it was basically acapella. As a perpetual choir nerd, I had my mouth open in awe as he transitioned to the original key in falsetto with ease, through an eruption of applause. He followed with “Glimpse Of Us,” in which he inserted ad-libs such as “Hoping I’ll find / A glimpse of us … Bitch.”
While initially laughing at his supposed inability to take his talent seriously or to touch on his sensitive, emotional side, that is so heavily marketed to his listeners for more than two minutes, I realized walking out of the venue with my friends that none of us had any idea what to make of the erratic performance we had just witnessed. On the train home, I reflected on the infinite capacity and methods we all have to carry our multitudes—our generation’s perceptions carved by the cultural erosion of the internet—something that George Miller is the farthest thing from being a stranger to.