Irony and Sincerity Blur Magnificently on Joji’s ‘Nectar’
In an oversaturated music scene, there is a constant influx of colorful characters vying for attention, searching for novel ways to reflect the current tides with their individual stamp. George Miller, who records under the moniker of Joji, is Japanese born and takes inspiration from the culture in a way that makes its way through his music subtly, and sometimes not so subtly. With his 2017 debut EP, “In Tongues,” and his first album, “BALLADS1” the following year, Joji demanded attention. Normally, a YouTube personality venturing into music might justifiably raise eyebrows, but a bit of comic spark and multimedia command is more of an attribute. Such was the case with Joji, a consummate auteur, with visuals and music coming hand in hand. He has always taken an active role in the entire presentation of his work. The directness and simplicity of his earliest work gave way to glossier stylings that kept fans guessing. His latest album, “Nectar,” neatly sews everything together, with Joji owning all the genres he steps into, and offering an album that will surely have fans rejoicing.
Opener “Ew” finds Joji at a detuned piano, tongue-in-cheek and head in the clouds. From his first utterances, this is a camp affair, and it grows steadily more so as the track develops. Strings envelop Joji, and he breaks into an unhindered R&B outpouring, revealing a new level of consummate craft. When a vaguely trap beat kicks in on “Modus,” he reacts correspondingly with a priceless interpretation of the typical throwaway flexing, sluggishly speaking in triplets, shifting into alien registers, and hooting in between, then launching into a boy band hook. “Tick Tock” takes this further, stringing together nonsensical syllables with swag, in an outlandish voice.
Joji’s latest single “Daylight” is a readymade hit, with all pop gestures streamlined for maximum effect. The subject is one of countless songs over the ages — being lonely late at night and desperately thinking of someone. As cliche and relatability are often one and the same, this works in Joji’s favor. A focus on unrequited love revisits lyrics from Joji’s breakthrough, 2018 single “Yeah Right.” The beat, courtesy of Diplo, kicks in and then kicks in harder, at just the right moments, with premature hooks that ensure an impact. Joji sings, “Bad luck, I don’t wanna be home at midnight,” and breaks into a sugary chorus, with outlandish falsetto adlibs thrown in.
On “Upgrade,” the recurrent lounge-ey jazz stylings give way to tinny acoustics and the most lo fi of beats, as Joji sings, “Won’t you upgrade? I know it hurts / You deserve it, I know your worth.” Yawned backing vocals, thrown between his deadpan delivery are an invaluable touch. “Gimme Love” breaks new ground, with Joji repeating the title over an upbeat, minimal dance beat, and adapting his shtick naturally. An entirely unanticipated outro full of luscious strings and layered vocal harmonies makes for one of the album’s standout moments.
On “Run,” another surefire single, Joji continues his sad, sentimental posturing, now declaring, “Guess I’m not enough… So I’ll just run,” with his falsetto crooning taking new heights. The song rings like a forgotten late ‘80s or early ‘90s hit that unites spirited singers at late hours when remembered. A glam heavy metal guitar solo seals the deal. The lead single, “Sanctuary,” channels the sentiment into a more condensed formant, packing a punch with growling bass carrying Joji’s infectious hook, as he revisits the circumstances of “Daylight,” singing, “I’ve been aimin’ for Heaven above / But an angel ain’t what I need.”
The unpredictable shuttling between lo fi and hi fi keeps listeners guessing. “High Hopes” builds on a fractured acoustic, and features a quick verse from Omar Apollo, who matches Jijo in quirk, dipping into overtly hip-hop territory for an instant, and expanding the template. “NITROUS” is a threadbare, lo fi instrumental, held together by an insistent beat on which Joji alternates between panned and layered pop R&B phrasing and designedly sloppy adlibs. Joji reaches a new level of hilarity on “Pretty Boy,” with a refrain of “I’m a pretty boy livin’ on the West side” that comes with a foolhardy flourish on the last word, and is followed by “Poppin’ blue pills.” In the lexicon stemming from the 1997 film “The Matrix,” blue pills represent blissful ignorance, weighing in on the side of ironic posturing. Lil Yachty balances the act with more standard braggadocio, but notes, “My real thoughts, you’ll never know,” leaving everything in the open. Perhaps coincidentally, Joji follows with “Normal People,” consoling, “We can pretend we’re normal people” in a self-assured, soulful croon, with gossamer additions from Rei Brown.
Considering all the warm, sonorous tones and soulful phrasings that have come so far, a track like “Afterthought” seems overdue. There is hardly a trace of the meek character behind a piano, as Joji turns out a swaying, slow jam, with help from New Zealand singer-songwriter Benee, who appears briefly, like most of the album’s features, but makes enough of an impact with her distinctive voice. “Mr. Hollywood” is another example of Joji transcending the niche of his earliest releases. He is on dedicated, swooning mic duties, and his vocals are processed to maximum effect, a reminder of the value of levity in music.
“777” places Joji’s voice over ‘80s synth pop bass, whiplash snares, and glittery synths, and finds him riffing off the music with alacrity, switching between Auto-Tune and laidback hype man duties. Electronic sounds take an avant turn with the experimental Yves Tumor joining Joji on “Reanimator.” Tumor turns out a mix that sounds like the guitar solo flashes of “Run” clipped and warped, while Joji, as always, picks up on the energy with a new variation of his usual fare.
On “Like You Do,” various aesthetics teased throughout the album converge in something of a eureka moment. Joji returns to the role of lovelorn lounge singer, this time over especially detuned pianos that mirror the off-center sincerity of his singing. Then, in a flash, he shows his vocal chops in a sweeping, infectious chorus that dissipates into Auto-tune musings, and repeats the cycle. Finally, Joji dives headlong into this the ‘80s on “Your Man,” and there could hardly be a more suitable ending, as the decade lends itself to the abandon behind so much of Joji’s music. He ends the music in gleeful staccato bursts, ending, “I’ll be your man.”
The offbeat whimsicality that has always characterized Joji’s music continues on “Nectar,” but comes along with the unanticipated glossy appeal teased by recent singles. Joji balances the two, and everything in between, rather brilliantly. The album is full of unabashedly saccharine, melismatic R&B indulgences, matched with deflated chest pumping, kicks in the dark, and jokey posturing from various angles. Joji retains his initial ironic edge, surprises listeners with a new aplomb, and switches between the two in the most broadly appealing way.
“Nectar” releases Sept. 25 on Apple Music.