Given the melancholic and somber tone of Joji’s music, and the undeniable popularity of his signature ballad, “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” it almost seemed too perfect that the 88rising star is performing two sold-out shows — one held on Valentine’s Day and the other the day after — at New York’s Bowery Ballroom.
On Thursday night (Feb. 14), Joji acknowledged those who were single and in a relationship, thanking everyone for choosing to spend a romantic evening with him. “New York, thank you for coming out tonight, on Valentine’s Day,” he said. “Amazing. Let me make it worth it, I hope it is.”
In November 2018, Joji made history as the first Asian-born artist to debut at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart for his last album, Ballads 1. It also debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, showing the sea change in greater Asian representation on the American charts. What followed was an announcement of a North American tour in winter, with remaining stops in Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, BC, and Seattle.
After an ambient performance by singer/songwriter Rei Brown, Joji elevated the energy in the room when he hit the stage promptly at 10:00 p.m with his pianist Gator. Wearing black jeans, an L.A. fitted cap, a North Face bubblecoat, and shirtless underneath, he embodies a new kind of R&B heartthrob, a former Internet personality that honed in on his musical ambitions to positive results. He’s an endearing performer, shouting out random phrases like “Unblock me bitch!” and “Fuck the L train!” His comedic chops and off-kilter energy make him charming, and the crowd only wanted more of him.
With a panel that projected his visuals and imagery associated with Ballads 1 on stage, Joji created a fun and safe space for everyone to belt out his lyrics. He opened with “Will He,” and proceeded to go through selections from his Ballads 1 and In Tongues sets, amidst occasional fan shouts of “I love you!” or “Be my Valentine!” His renditions of “Head in the Clouds” and “Test Drive” elicited loud singalongs, as did other favorites like “Can’t Get Over You” and “No Fun.” At several points during his set, Joji would grab the mic stand and wield it like an extended microphone for the crowd, pushing them to sing louder.
This was a commanding solo performance from one of 88Rising’s flagship artists, who last October rocked a much bigger venue with his labelmates at South Street Seaport’s Pier 17. Joji was comfortable, genuinely excited to be in New York (“this is an aesthetically beautiful crowd”), and wanted to make sure his fans got their money’s worth. So quasi-trolling, Joji teased his last song already, just a little after 10:30 p.m., and possibly leaving fans without performing “Slow Dancing in the Dark.”
“Yeah Right” brought the crowd together, embracing the moment with another singalong that would have been acceptable as the conclusion. “Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you,” Joji said, before disappearing backstage.
Naturally, “One more song!” chants echoed throughout the venue. After a short period, Joji came back for the song everyone wanted to hear. He did a bold, piano-driven take of “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” letting the power ballad guide the crowd as they ran through the anthemic chorus. And now that they were warmed up again, he performed it with the song’s instrumental, with everyone deep in their feelings as they powered through it one last time.
With that, Joji bid farewell, letting newly formed couples and Valentine’s Day dates mingle for a while longer.