The Many Faces Of Joji, The Internet’s Favorite Shapeshifting Sad Boi

Forrest Grenfell

The Many Faces Of Joji, The Internet’s Favorite Shapeshifting Sad Boi

Forrest Grenfell

Conventional wisdom says that anything you put on the internet lives forever, whether it’s a long-buried YouTube video or unearthed LiveJournal entries from 2004. It’s true, the internet has a long memory. And yet artists like sad boi balladeer Joji have been using the medium to reinvent themselves every few years. For Joji, it’s definitely working.

Joji — aka 29-year-old George Miller — has been tinkering with the internet in this way for years. A decade ago, the Japanese-Australian singer was a popular YouTube personality named “Filthy Frank” who earned followers via short-form videos where he’d spill anecdotes about explosive diarrhea among other boyish bon mots. In 2012, “Frank” appeared in a series of prank clips where he — as a new character called “Mr. Pink” — dashes around various settings in pink lycra bodysuits wreaking havoc, pushing people off skateboards, smashing guitars to Skrillex, flailing his limbs to “Gangnam Style,” etc.

Mr. Pink really took off in 2013 though when he and a group of costumed friends inspired the “Harlem Shake” dance craze. If you were online in 2013, you absolutely remember the “Harlem Shake,” and maybe you filmed yourself doing one too, probably right after filming a lip-synch to “Call Me Maybe.” Joji’s entire YouTube history is well-documented on KnowYourMeme, which also delves into some controversial videos of “Frank” performing interpretations of accents from around the world based on ethnic and racial stereotypes. Not a great look, and for obvious reasons, some of those videos have since been deleted. (Though bootlegs still live on via various other channels.)

This is all to say, Joji — who grew up in Osaka and moved to NYC after high school — has gone on quite a journey from whackadoo YouTube comedian to lo-fi “trap-n-B” singer to his most up-to-date iteration as a piano-playing crooner melding influences ranging from Daniel Caesar to James Blake to ANOHNI. Joji has clearly opted to use his rubber-band vocals for something else, which is hopefully less taxing on his system. In 2017, he quit YouTube comedy, citing the “pretty gnarly” medical issues that had come up, presumably as a result of his throwing his body around on camera and contorting his voice into all sorts of guttural growls.

Today, Joji is riding a huge wave of success via pensive piano ballad “Glimpse Of Us.” Recently peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song has been cycling in and out of Spotify’s #1 spot along with Harry Styles and Kate Bush in recent weeks. Tonally, there is nothing prankish or “Pink Guy” about “Glimpse Of Us.” On its face, the song sounds like a possible wedding-dance contender. But a closer look at the lyrics reveals a tear-shedding story of two broken-up lovers who’ve ostensibly moved on but cannot shake the memory of each other. “‘Cause sometimes I look in her eyes/ And that’s where I find a glimpse of us,” Joji murmurs: “And I try to fall for her touch/ But I’m thinking of the way it was/ Said I’m fine and said I moved on/ I’m only here passing time in her arms/ Hoping I’ll find/ A glimpse of us.” Quite the vibe shift from Filthy Frank.

Though Joji’s ascension might feel super-recent, he’s actually been circling the Billboard charts for a few years. His all-caps debut LP BALLADS 1 dropped in 2018 and became the first project from an Asian-born artist to top Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Though considerably more DIY, Joji’s early music is representative of a melancholy vibe that could conceivably be morphed into an aesthetic via clothes, noir music videos, syncs, and other branding opportunities. “Glimpse Of You” is cleaner and more fine-tuned, but Joji’s gloom is still there.

Part of Joji’s success no doubt stems from linking up with the buzzy 88rising, a “hybrid management, record label, video production, and marketing company” that is based in Los Angeles but offers its services to Asian American and Asian artists who release music in the US. (Other notables include Guapdad 4000, who is of Filipino and African-American descent, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, and Chinese hip-hop group Higher Brothers, with whom Joji collabed in 2017 on a song called “Nomadic.”) Days before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the US into lockdown, Joji made his network TV debut on Fallon performing “Run,” a simultaneously slow-burning single that builds on its urgency with layered, soulful harmonies.

After being postponed due to the pandemic, Joji’s sophomore album Nectar was eventually released in September 2020 and featured the also-popular singles “Gimme Love” and “Sanctuary,” plus contributions from Benee, Lil Yachty, Omar Apollo, and Yves Tumor. The producers list is long; I counted almost 30 names in total, including classical-pop heavyweight Rogét Chahayed, Greg Kurstin, Clams Casino, Diplo, Jim-E Stack, Kenny Beats, and more. The pop music community is rallying behind Joji.

So is TikTok: “Glimpse Of Us” can chalk up its high Hot 100 placement to a huge boost from TikTok, where it currently has more than 820 million views. Fans are not only using “Glimpse Of Us” to soundtrack videos chronicling their breakups, but they’re marveling at how “this man was one of the most vulgar people I’ve ever watched.”

@andy.phann Highly recommend “Nickelodeon Girls” by Pink Guy 💀 #fyp #ItsGreatOutdoors #AmazonMusicProudHeroes #joji #filthyfrank #asian #music #MakeNightsEpic #glimpseofus ♬ Glimpse of Us – Joji

Billboard’s Kristin Robinson breaks down the song’s wide-reaching appeal super-accurately, IMO: “I think this song’s chorus is incredibly accessible for so many people. I see users interpreting these lyrics in so many different ways: touching pet videos, ironic and funny boyfriend/girlfriend videos, crying videos, etc. Clearly there’s something about the combination of open-ended lyrics and poignant melody that is connecting. Also, it’s not super common for ballads like this to become huge on the platform, leaving an open space for this song to fill.”

For anyone struggling to reconcile contemplative alt-pop/R&B Joji with that YouTuber who sent the “Harlem Shake” viral, Joji himself cited Donald Glover as a strong influence. “I thought at one point, I could take [Pink Guy] into a direction where it could be serious and just some of the lines could be funny like some of Donald Glover’s early stuff,” he told Billboard in 2017. That’s a totally on-point comparison; after all, before he was Childish Gambino and winning Emmys for Atlanta, Glover was making us do spit-takes on Community and pretending to shit himself before scream-crying about it out of embarrassment. (Never forget that Donald Glover likes to skateboard and would never do anything to ruin your friendship like poop his pants.)

“It doesn’t matter how, I just want to continue expanding,” he added in 2017. “I just like creating stuff, it doesn’t matter what the medium is.” If you’re only just becoming familiar with Joji, his sketch comedy background might seem truly off putting, maybe because our human brains are wired to hate contradiction. We love labels because they help us make sense of an uncontrollable world. But some of our best dramatic art comes from the funniest people (Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back). Why shouldn’t that be true in pop music, too?

Eric Rojas

CHART WATCH

Chris DeVille here to tell you that, for the fourth time this year, Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti is #1 on the Billboard 200. The album logged 111,000 equivalent album units — an astounding total for a project that’s been out for two months — almost entirely via streaming. Per Billboard, it’s the first album since Drake’s Views in 2016 to record more than 100,000 units in each of its first nine weeks. Harry Styles, Drake, and Morgan Wallen are at #2, #3, and #4, followed by a #5 debut for Shinedown’s Planet Zero. The set logged 49,000 units, including 43,000 in sales, to become the band’s fifth top-10 album. The rest of the top 10: Lil Durk, Future, Chris Brown, the Weeknd, and Post Malone.

Harry Styles’ “As It Was” holds on to #1 on the Hot 100 for a ninth nonconsecutive week. At a new #2 peak is Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” which could easily hit #1 soon with the release of her new album imminent. After Jack Harlow’s “First Class” at #3, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” returns to its #4 peak. Future, Drake, and Tems’ “Wait For U” is at #5, followed by Drake and 21 Savage’s “Jimmy Cooks” at #6.

Bad Bunny and Chencho Corleone’s “Me Porto Bonito” is back to #7, followed at #8 by Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves,” which feels like it’s been on the chart since the first time “Running Up That Hill” was impacting. (According to Billboard its 77-week run on the chart is the fourth longest in history.) Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul,” which debuted at #7 last week when the column was off for Independence Day, falls to #9. And Latto’s “Big Energy” rounds out the top 10 at #10. With that, I’ll hand the computer back over to Rachel.

POP FIVE

Sabrina Carpenter – “Vicious”
The music video for this song — written out in AOL Instant Messages and Windows 95 system error popups — feels triggering on a few different levels, partially due to remembering my own “vicious” crushes but mostly because I was a real sucker for emo lyric away messages.

Cardi B – “Hot Shit” (Feat. Kanye West & Lil Durk)
Though “Hot Shit” was technically recorded in 2019, Cardi sounds fresher than ever, boasting about her accolades, jewelry, Chanel, and checks “comin’ fast/ I’m like swoosh.” Even Ye manages to sound inspired.

Tiësto & Charli XCX – “Hot In It”
Charli tries her hand at EDM-pop with Dutch producer Tiësto, and it won’t have any trouble soundtracking sweaty summer nights out at some Ibiza club. Personally, I’m more partial to Charli’s experimental-pop collabs with PC Music and the like — she’s such a beautiful weirdo with a non-stop ear for hooks. “Hot In It” sounds like Charli on summer vacation, and we all need one of those in order to reset.

YUNGBLUD – “Don’t Feel Like Being Sad Today”
“Don’t Feel Like Being Sad Today” is meant to give “defiant happiness,” according to its author, who resembles Ferris Bueller leading a joyful chorus of “Twist And Shout” in his music video. We’ve come a long way from Fred Durst hyping up fans to burn shit down, and frankly I’m here for it.

J-Hope – “MORE”
As BTS go on hiatus, J-Hope is the first member to step out with solo material. A mix of English and Korean, “MORE” blends industrial, hard rock and some ’90s hip-hop, beats into an exciting bit of pop that looks back and to the future all at once.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Summer Walker is expecting her second child. [People]
  • Nav announced a new album Demons Protected By Angels. [HipHopnMore]
  • A stalker broke into Ariana Grande’s house (she was not home) on her birthday, violating the restraining order she already had against him. [TMZ]
  • In other celebrity stalker news, a Brooklyn man was arrested on charges of stalking Taylor Swift. [TMZ]
  • Speaking of stalking Taylor Swift, The Sun claims she’s been secretly engaged for months. [The Sun]
  • One last Taylor Swift item, though I promise I’m not stalking her too: She appears for a second in the trailer for David O. Russell’s star-studded new film Amsterdam. [YouTube]
  • TikTokker Bella Poarch’s new single “Dolls” is out 7/15. [YouTube]
  • Calvin Harris’ new album Funk Wav Bounces Vol 2 will feature 21 Savage, Dua Lipa, Young Thug, Stefflon Don, Chloe Bailey, Charlie Puth, Pusha T, Shenseea, Tinashe, Normani, Lil Durk, Halsey, Offset, 6lack, Justin Timberlake, Coi LeRay, Busta Rhymes, Donae’o, Latto, Pharrell, Swae Lee, Jorja Smith, and Snoop Dogg. It’s out 8/5. [Calvin Harris]
  • From that album, Calvin Harris shared the new 21 Savage collab “New Money.” [YouTube]
  • Demi Lovato previewed their new single “Substance,” out 7/15. [Instagram]
  • Fancy Hagood teamed up with Kacey Musgraves on a new song and video, “Blue Dream Baby.” [YouTube]
  • Coca-Cola is releasing a new strawberry-watermelon flavor created with Marshmello. [Coca-Cola]
  • Machine Gun Kelly smashed a champagne glass on his head at his MSG afterparty. [Page Six]
  • In his new documentary, MGK says he regrets his feud with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor: “I should’ve just picked up the phone.” [We Are The Pit]
  • Kaytranada, Snoh Aalegra, and Mike Dean are replacing Doja Cat on the Weeknd’s tour. [Variety]
  • Carrie Underwood, who brought out Axl Rose at Stagecoach in April, joined Guns N’ Roses for two songs in London. [Twitter]
  • Adele performed her first public concert in five years at Hyde Park London. [Setlist.fm]
  • Big Sean and Jhené Aiko are expecting a baby. [TMZ]
  • Alma released a new song and video, “Everything Beautiful.” [YouTube]
  • Harry Styles cancelled his Copenhagen concert on 7/3 following a deadly shooting at a nearby shopping mall earlier that day. [Twitter]
  • Billie Eilish and Finneas shared a message on the televised special Ukraine: Answering The Call. [Twitter]
  • Nicki Minaj appeared to diss Kanye West in her performance at Essence Fest. [Twitter]
  • Minaj’s husband was sentenced to probation and home detention for failing to register as a sex offender. [NBC Los Angeles]
  • In a new interview Noah Cyrus discusses her recovery from Xanax addiction. [Rolling Stone]
  • Disney and ABC will stage a live action Beauty And The Beast musical in December. [TV Line]
  • BLACKPINK will release new music in August, and it seems Ryan Tedder produced. [Twitter]
  • Coldplay released a video for “Biutyful” featuring puppet band the Weirdos. [YouTube]
  • We Don’t We announced a hiatus and cancelled their tour “due to unforeseen circumstances related to our ongoing legal battle to emancipate ourselves from the production company.” [Instagram]
  • A Post Malone concert, Twelve Carat Toothache: A VR Experience, premieres in the metaverse on Friday. [AdWeek]
  • DJ Khaled’s new album is titled God Did. [Rap-Up]
  • Dua Lipa walked the runway for Balenciaga’s 51st Couture Collection in Paris. [Twitter]
  • Charlie Puth’s new album Charlie is out 10/7. [Instagram]
  • K-pop group aespa shared a new song and video, “Girl” [YouTube]
  • Backstreet Boys announced a Christmas album. [Twitter]
  • Seventeen unveiled a new song and video, “Cheers.” [YouTube]
  • Lizzo revealed her Special tracklist, which includes a song titled “Coldplay.” [Twitter]
  • PNAU remixed Tame Impala and Diana Ross’ Minions song “Turn Up The Sunshine.” [YouTube]
  • DNCE shared a new song, “Got Me Good.” [YouTube]
  • Roddy Ricch kicked a fan who crashed the stage at Openair Frauenfeld in Switzerland. [TikTok]
  • blackbear dropped a new song and video, “The Idea.” [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes is postponing his Wonder Tour to take care of his mental health. [Instagram]
  • Alec Benjamin covered Harry Styles’ “As It Was” acoustic for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • SZA confirmed Doja Cat will be featured on her song “Shirt.” [Twitter]
  • Cardi B’s “Hot Shit” video is coming Tuesday night. [Instagram]
  • Cardi also got in a big Twitter fight with The Shade Room. [HNHH]
  • Tomorrow X Together did “Good Boy Gone Bad” on GMA. [YouTube]
  • TikTok-viral pop-punk star GAYLE announced her Avoiding College Tour. [Twitter]

CLOSING TIME

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