Review: Joji’s ‘Nectar’ feels forgettable save for a few standout tracks
Over the past few years, former YouTube star George Miller — better known as Joji — has become one of the most popular internet artists in the mainstream world of music. Given his background, a career in serious music sounds unlikely; under his YouTube personality “Filthy Frank,” Joji was known for his dark, gross-out humor and his wild alter ego, Pink Guy. However, Joji’s transition from fringe YouTube comedian to mainstream R&B artist was more successful than anyone could have imagined.
Throughout his short career, Joji has made a name for himself with his quiet, soothing voice and downtempo music that draws influence from hip-hop, R&B and electronic music. Much of his work on his debut album “Ballads 1” sounds pleasing; however, it also feels forgettable, failing to leave a lasting impression on the listener. Joji’s most recent album, “Nectar,” improves on “Ballads 1” in almost every way, and is his strongest collection of songs to date. However, “Nectar” still suffers from many of the same issues that have followed Joji throughout his musical career — namely, his nice but unimpressionable tracks. “Nectar” contains both Joji’s good and bad qualities in nearly equal measure; he displays his wonderful ability to build a melancholic atmosphere and some memorable melodies, but many of the 18 songs on the album feel forgettable and have the same whispery, high-pitched and sometimes frustratingly monotonous vocal work.
The third track “Tick Tock” offers a perfect example of both the good and bad of the album. The combination of the guitar and the drum machine creates a haunting and dark mood. In the verses, Joji uses a simple flow which suits the aggressive instrumental. However, the interesting aspects of this track are squandered by the boring vocal melodies in the chorus. Ultimately, this results in the song sounding enjoyable in the moment, but forgotten the second the next song starts. If Joji sang with a more distinctive melody in this track, it would have complemented the unique instrumentals and made for one of his best songs to date.
The beginning of the first track “Ew” has similar issues as “Tick Tock.” The descending piano melodies at the beginning create a melancholic, reflective mood. It also effectively uses space, as the piano sounds quiet and distant. Yet, when Joji’s high-pitched vocals begin, they clash with the somber mood. As the track continues, however, it gets better, especially when the strings begin in the chorus. The subtle drum beat, soaring strings and intermittent piano elevate the second half of the song far above the first. Even the vocals improve markedly in the bridge, with one of the most satisfying vocal melodies on the album.
Though the album has its inconsistencies, some of the songs on “Nectar” are among the best that Joji has ever released. The fourth track “Daylight” has an upbeat atmosphere, unique among Joji’s work. The off-kilter instrumental, produced by Diplo, complements the lilting vocals. Joji sings much louder and more expressively than he typically does, which results in one of the best vocal performances on the album. This song provides the perfect example of a Joji song that combines great production with memorable vocals to create one of his most enjoyable tracks in his discography.
The next track “Upgrade” picks up right where “Daylight” left off, with a loud piano melody at the beginning. However, the track quickly becomes a quiet acoustic song, a large departure from Joji’s typical blend of electronic and R&B sound. The song only has one verse, but the vocal melody is memorable in comparison to other tracks on the album. This song is short and sweet, and again demonstrates the importance of a unique vocal melody in Joji’s music.
Perhaps the best song on the album is the seventh track “Run.” Joji’s vocals sound loud and crisp; in some points, he stretches his voice to the point of breaking, which is uncommon for his style. The cyclical guitar line in the instrumental gives the entire track a dark undertone, making for the best instrumental on the album. The quiet-to-loud dynamics of the verses and chorus works to create tension, especially in the drum beat. Overall, Joji plays to his strengths as an artist, and, combined with his strong vocal performance, creates one of the strongest songs of his career.
In addition to those previously listed, many other tracks on this album stand out among the rest. “Mr. Hollywood” makes good use of trap instrumentation, contributing to its hypnotic atmosphere. The ambient, nearly instrumental interlude in “Reanimator” uses electronic instrumentation to create a dark and unsettling song. Finally, the penultimate track “Like You Do,” a piano ballad, features a dynamic vocal melody in the chorus that belongs among the best on the album.
Despite all of the successful tracks listed so far, there are quite a few songs on “Nectar” that are boring or forgettable, although none are unenjoyable. “Sanctuary,” the lead single of the album, combines uninspired vocals with a generic instrumental to create one of the most unsatisfying tracks on the album. While the verses build some amount of tension, the chorus fails to resolve it. The falsetto in the chorus feels grating and detrimental to the track as a whole. Although the song is not unenjoyable, it is perhaps the least enjoyable track on the album.
The next track “High Hopes” starts with promise, as its fragmented guitar riff sets up a dark mood. However, the song never really finds any rhythm. I commend Joji for experimenting with a new disjointed sound, but the song ultimately doesn’t feel fleshed out. The featured verse from Omar Apollo makes for the best part of this track as his mumbling flow and ad-libs complement the instrumental in a way that Joji’s melodic vocals do not.
The album ends with possibly the poppiest song on the album, “Your Man.” The entire song is built around a driving synth line, making it sound more like a pop song of the mid-2010s than the R&B of the rest of the album. However, this change in musical style works for this song. After the dark and melancholic atmosphere of the rest of the album, this upbeat track is a welcome change of pace that, along with “Daylight,” proves that Joji can make a happy song just as well as the sad songs he became known for. This track represents some of the qualities that make this album better than any music he has released before: it is far from forgettable and separates itself by having a different sound than his other music.
Despite the inclusion of some bland songs that have plagued his entire career, “Nectar” succeeds because Joji took risks that he never took before. If his albums continue to include these innovative tracks in higher and higher proportions, Joji has the potential to go from pretty good to great.