Joji | The Ballad of The Unaimed Arrow: For Every Shaft, A Quiver
Remember, in 2013, when Obama was president, and Miley Cyrus released “Wrecking Ball,” and everybody—and I mean everybody—was doing the Harlem Shake?
The song shouts out “Con Los Terroristas,” and someone’s hips awkwardly gyrate to an ascending beat. Then, after about fifteen seconds, the beat drops, the video cuts, more people enter the frame and they collectively lose their minds. Dressed up in costumes, people flail and do what some might call dancing. After a short but sometimes unwatchable ten seconds of madness, it’s over.
If you were a person on the Internet at the time, odds are you watched the videos. You might have even made your own. Rewatching them now reaches ice-bucket-challenge-levels of cringeworthiness—but in 2013, we couldn’t get enough, and the videos have hundreds of millions of views to prove it.
The person we have to thank for the viral trend used to go by Filthy Frank. Early in 2013, he took the song by Bauuer from the previous August, dressed up in a pink spandex bodysuit along with three other people, and created the viral dance.
Filthy Frank wasn’t exactly a one hit wonder either. He amassed 6.1 million YouTube followers and over 800 million views across his videos. Many of his videos, much like the Harlem Shake, are hard to watch now, with titles like “One Direction Fan Commits Suicide #Cut4Zayn,” or videos of him cooking a dead rat. The channel’s description says that Filthy Frank is “the embodiment of everything a person should not be,” and emphasizes that the account is parodic. Whether or not the parody was effective is a different conversation, but what’s interesting about Filthy Frank is that as his contemporaries found themselves down alt-right rabbit holes, as others struggled to maintain YouTube fame, he took a different path. He rebranded, became Joji, and started to release good music—so good that Time Magazine named his song “YEAH RIGHT” the 4th best of 2018.
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If Filthy Frank was provocative, stoking the culture wars under the guise of comedy, Joji—whose legal name is George Miller—seems to be the opposite. In interviews he’s relaxed, friendly, and calm. He talks like the guy who you know who wears a lot of Supreme. His songs are less for dancing and more for driving alone on a summer night with your windows down. His first full-length album, BALLADS 1, which was released in October, is instrumental, lo-fi, and moody. He made it when he was having health issues. “It was a way for me to distract myself,” he tells me over the phone. He hopes it helps distract anyone listening who needs it.
Joji named his album “BALLADS 1” because, to him, “ballads, the big ones, they’re just timeless. They transcend language. Celine Dion is huge in Asia. No matter where you are, people know the lyrics to her songs.” A musical omnivore, his influences range from Etta James to Aerosmith. Born and raised in Japan, Joji says ballads were a huge part of his musical education. “An Aerosmith song, like ‘I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,’ that’s on every Karaoke box.” He was so inspired that he decided to dabble in the form himself.
And maybe Joji’s onto something. BALLADS 1 was the first album by an Asian artist to ever reach Billboard #1 for Hip Hop and R&B. Joji’s label, 88rising, which released the album, represents primarily Asian artists, including other ascending talents like Niki, Rich Brian, and Keith Ape. “The ones that sound cinematic and bigger, I wanted to bring back the ballad concept,” he explains, “but with a touch of the sauce.”
The “sauce” that Joji brings feels like a recipe that’s still simmering. It’s not that Joji is new to (a particular type of) stardom, but rather that his work now is so different from his previous persona that it still feels like he is evolving. Like Filthy Frank, he tells me that “Joji is definitely a character, but as close as it’s been so far to myself.” On much of BALLADS 1, Joji sings of love and heartbreak and not fully understanding your own feelings—stuff most twenty-six year olds feel. And there’s a definite sense that Joji is growing up, pranks on Youtube swapped for songs like “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK,” a single from the album. On the song, he’s still trying to figure it all out, singing, Give me reasons we should be complete / You should be with him, I can’t compete. On “ATTENTION,” he asks, Girl, would it kill you just to throw a little bit of attention? / If I hurt you, I’m afraid God’s gonna teach me a lesson. Rather than trolling, he’s speaking honestly about his own emotions and experiences.
While his first EP “was done in a bedroom,” “BALLADS 1,” he says, “was a little more social.” “I spent a lot of time just going in on beats, and then we would go to the studio and hang out, fuck around in the booth.” The collaborations on the album, with people like Clams Casino and Shlohmo, “just came from sessions that we didn’t really expect to get anything out of.” But spontaneity shouldn’t be dismissed as a lack of work ethic. “There was a two month period where we were ina room with no windows working on the album,” he says. The result is such a marked departure from his previous releases that many people who listen to his songs have no idea that they come from a character they’ve more than likely previously seen on YouTube.
Not everyone has reacted positively to the transformation, though. Vox chided, “Joji is a music project so generically hipster that it should be sold bundled with a flannel and knit cap.” They claim he’s essentially rebranded himself as a “quirky, totally chill bro,” even though he “profited off of cruel humor.”
But Joji, characteristically, seems unbothered by the people who criticize the transformation. Their comments don’t phase him, he tells me, because they don’t have the full picture. “They might know one thing, but it doesn’t really matter. That’s what makes this whole thing pretty crazy,” he says.
In a now deleted Youtube video, Joji got on screen and had a conversation with Filthy Frank. He takes a deep breath and says, “Frank, I love you man, but you’re a stressful motherfucker. All you do is you just push and push and push, and that’s fine to an extent, but it affects your health and my health.” In the clip, Joji and Frank get into a fight, and it ends with Joji saying, “I’m fucking out of here man.” The screen changes to announce Frank’s death, reading “Filthy Frank 2011-2017.” This seemed like his way of putting that part of his past behind him. Around the same time, Joji released his EP In Tongues, then a year later, BALLADS 1.
“At the end of the day, that was just a totally different thing, it was just having fun,” Joji tells me. Filthy Frank, he says, “was good practice.” “I’ll admit, I played the character pretty well, and that’s what makes this whole Joji thing pretty crazy, like, woah—this guy is this guy.”
Despite the changes and evolutions he’s undergone, one thing remains constant: Joji is still having fun. He just finished a European tour, and is getting ready for his first US headlining tour. As our conversation winds down, I ask him what lies ahead. His answer is fittingly elusive. He laughs, and I can hear his smirk through the phone, a bit of the prankster still in him. “An unaimed arrow never misses.”