Two Nights in Sanctuary: Joji at History

10/09, 10/10/2022: Edgy internet comedian turned full-fledged musician conquers History for two nights

Oh my god, I saw George Miller in the flesh… TWICE! The man who has traversed the internet as an edgy comedian, SoundCloud lo-fi artist, and now, a reinvented R&B star was in Toronto and nothing could hold me back from seeing him. Every word to every song was waiting to be spat out at a moment’s notice, and the wait only exacerbated my excitement. With the most eager of fans lined up from 8 AM, it comes to no one’s surprise how dedicated Joji’s fanbase is. The line exponentially grew quicker than any concert I’ve ever seen as the most diverse group of teenagers, Pink Guy impersonators, and 20-somethings eagerly awaited the chance to witness their Papa Franku in real life. Thankfully, during the lineup, the venue had the brains to start selling merch early. While they were lazy, copy-and-paste prints of the tour poster, I bought into the FOMO and now see the same hoodie all over UofT's campus.

When the clock hit 7, I came back from a bathroom run and scrambled to throw out every piece of concert contraband I had. Once I was in, the fog machines added a dream-like ambiance to the venue, setting the stage for the most epic wait ever! Admittedly, I had no interest in the openers and did absolutely zilch for research—but then, it happened. The lights dimmed and heavenly synths blared; the first opener, SavageRealm, was here! Glorious day! AAaaand the intro to his first song was to get the audience raving about masturbation to back up his aptly titled song, “Aggressive Masturbation".... With the audience fully engaged in singing“pass me some lotion lil bitch / I beat the skin off my dick,you can get the gist of Mr. Realm’s set. He undeniably kept the crowd invested by opening the pit for rock, paper, scissors, and seeping into that crude, Filthy Frank humour. Ultimately, though, his act felt out of place as an opener.

The crowd was emphatic for the next opener, Dhruv and his band—especially the drummer. Starting with his astrology-based love song, “Retrograde”, the build-up on this track was so immense, unravelling ever so naturally. The soft, minimal vocals and instrumentals that kick off the track transformed into a heavily embellished, passionate cry. His rich yet easy-going vocals gave me slow-jam Omar Apollo vibes, but with every song carrying the same instrumentation and little break between songs, it often caused the set to blur together. That is, until the end of the set, with Tik-Tok hit “double take”  performed live. I got to witness a vocal master at work over an infectious, snappy little chorus—not to mention the chemistry Dhruv had with his drummer and guitarist. He understood when to let them shine for solo tangents, and it left me wanting more. So, yeah, I am now Dhruv's biggest fan.

But this. Was. IT! I have never been so excited to see a man named George perform. “Rockstar” by Nickelback and “I’m a Gangster” by Viper began to play as a part of Joji’s deliberately chosen pre-show playlist, getting mixed reactions from the crowd. I am once again reminded of who I’m here for: A jokester, a goofy guy, someone that is so self-aware and ironic you wonder how he rebuilt his entire reputation by writing ballads for heartbreak. With that being said… Holy hell! The lights came down, and the Lost Ballads VHS exclusive track, “Don't U Know I Love You,” starts to fuel my Joji fan elitism. SavageRealm reappears on stage, and band members made their way to the stage; the audience lost their mind at every new face. At last, with a shift to seizure-inducing lights and a comedically generic trap beat, there he was: Joji. He waved to the crowd and picked up a chunky video camera that took a live feed, streaming the shakiest Y2K-core-looking footage. When he finally settled, he belted out one of many “TORONTOs!!!” and awkwardly jumped into the set with “Sanctuary.” The song was performed fairly straight, with some embellishments from the guitar and well-choreographed light work that included a moment where they disappeared one by one in the pause between the bridge and the final chorus. The atmosphere in the room as Joji’s voice slowly cut out singing “just how long our lives will be” with the lights coming back full force was magical.

In between songs, Joji had prepared some puns that incorporated the names of the upcoming songs—and while they were forced, they were charming. No exceptions to “YEAH RIGHT,” a song that emphasized Joji’s subdued vocals into an edgy, self-destructive anthem. The crowd—who were mostly couples—cried out the loveless and numb lyrics with a fiery passion. During instrumental breaks, Joji had decided to embrace his inner Ja Morant and started doing the griddy and prancing around while his guitarist went off.

Yada Yada he performed “Will He” yada yada and then... he brought out... THE TREBUCHET! The spotlight rained a heavenly glow onto the overtly bedazzled catapultic device. A 3D model of the beast was projected on the screen, and merch was gracefully flung to the luckiest of fellas. Now, I do not know if you follow THE TREBUCHET, but Joji pulled it off with the mellow banger, “Pretty Boy.” The exclusion of Lil Yachty’s verse was noticeable, but the song’s fun—almost childish vocal melodies coupled with the clumsy and exaggerated trap instrumentals translated into a wonderfully chaotic performance.

Then, he dared to come back with McDonald's and proclaimed his Postmates was late—like, we have Postmates in Canada? One rightfully thrown Fillet’o’Fish later and we were back with Joji’s most danceable single to date, “Yukon.” A red half moon engulfed the stage as Joji crooned over the soft-spoken piano intro with the addition of a soundboard that blasted out “Bruh”, cartoon running sounds, and record scratches. The shimmering, lowkey vocal melodies effortlessly transitioned into a punchy drum rhythm that lit up the crowd. But then, he had to pee, and man, did he have to pee. The timer on both nights exceeded a minute and a half: Get this guy’s bladder checked! But, I know he did not want to waste my time, and he made up for it with the iconic Soundcloud “deep-cut"—that is, if you consider the song that originally blew Joji’s career as a “deep-cut." And boy, can you tell how the song has aged with Joji’s originally nasal vocals, sparse trap drum artifacts, and overpowering 808s being completely altered for the live performance. Joji swoons the crowd with a rich vocal texture, and as the guitarist bangs out an undeniably sexy solo, everything felt right at that moment. Everything Joji has worked to become was realized; it was the comfort of him on stage; it was the embrace of his more joke-y persona; it was a clear personal evolution. Needless to say, following this song with the primally simple “Attention” absolutely killed me—slaughtered me even. The over-amplified pianos rang throughout the venue in a fairly straight performance… That is until the 808s hit. being right next to the subwoofers, I could feel my soul tremble. Despite my entire reality shaking, it was obvious that this song’s simple composition, lyrics, and melodies just work so well in a concert setting. The multiple pauses throughout left open space for the “Bruh” button, fans crying “I only smile for you, smile for you” and professing their undeniable love for this lovely man.

After something as emotionally heavy and oppressive as “Attention”, I think I may need something a little light to snack on. Hmmm... Oh, perfect! “I Can’t Get Over You!" Its crisp hi-hats and midi drums are certainly a recipe for a cute, digestible little diddy. The shy, spaced-out delivery in the original recording remains intact with every new line being unpredictable and melodically different. I cannot state how petite and simultaneously groovy this song got me. The short rap verse reads like an awkward, but sincere love poem that translates into a romantically ambivalent yet hype performance. Joji himself was a huge fan of Gator’s (the pianist) solo at the end of the song to the point where he started to FREAK on the stage, convulsing and moaning as the crowd cheered and a lovely keyboard solo brought him to climax.

Each Joji stage freakout signifies the TRE—I mean, T-shirt cannon time! After the undeniably clunky, medieval novelty of the TREBUCHET had run its course, SavageRealm cheered on the crowd with a simplistic, trap beat, as Joji had a blast loading and firing the cannon. It was time for me to gatekeep—yet again—and if knowing an exclusive song on a literal VHS tape was not enough for you, it was time for my personal favourite of his SoundCloud deep-cuts (notice the lack of parenthesis?). “you suck Charlie” is full of obtuse lyrics, and a beautiful, cut-up jazz sample that ebbs and flows so smoothly with a rich vocal texture. The dirty, downright muddy drums that drive this certified lo-fi classic gave way for a performance that was quiet and laid back but ultimately, very appreciated.

His most lo-fi song comes was followed by his most decadent and grand, the heartstring-tugging, “Like You Do.” As a showcase of his vocal prowess, “Like You Do” oozes cliches about love, heartbreak, and all that jazz—but the momentum behind every chorus, every verse, and even every word are so beyond Joji’s scale. This small-time SoundCloud artist that is often shrouded by reverb and retro vocal effects is belting out a heart-wrenching story backed up by heavenly strings, crooning guitars, and emotionally-charged synths. It is how this song is performed that elevates it to an entirely new level: The lack of theatrics and the bare performance with soft purple spotlights beaming down. I would not have it any other way.

Here, we hit another fun, goofy, and whimsical little roadblock: A surprise cameo of a local Toronto act. That could have meant a lot of things: The Dundas square man that goes “blaagh”, perhaps the Queen and Spadina man on his karaoke speaker? Nope, it was none of those. It was someone who I thought had died already… It was... Tony Stark ('s impersonator...)! With the crowd befuddled in the presence of a technological genius and innovator, Joji disrespectfully held his handheld camera at the shakiest and most unflattering angle, streaming everything to the screen behind him. The impersonator took it like a champ, even answering the question, “do you get freaky?”—apparently, he does.

From basically one interlude to another, he finally uses one of his interlude songs, “worldstar money,” as an actual interlude. The scrappy ukulele chords and fighting noises are all that accompany Joji in the opening, but as soon as the beat drops, so does his dedication to finishing the track. The mostly instrumental second half became another merch segment—which makes sense, but I am disappointed at the fact that he did not embrace the calming, yet chaotic vibe of the breakdown just to do another merch giveaway. It’s okay, I’ll give him all the love in the world anyways.

Awkward phrasing aside, “Gimme Love” went off without a hitch. In the first half of the song, the crowd was bouncing alongside SavageRealm, who started the "ay" chant with the support of the guitarist's killer riff playing off the instrumental’s melody. The upbeat, kick-snare melody brings brightness and energy to the song that was only reinforced by the alternating orange and white lights across a searing, lava background. If you have heard the track, you know the euphoric interlude, and the second half of the song really kicked everything into high gear. The once minimal string melody that signified a shift towards elegance has been replaced with a piano substitute. Don’t get me wrong, though, the piano version was just as great. That delicate, intricate sound accompanying the soaring “Ooos” as a kick drum ramped into the last momentous verse felt like a glorious climax. As the audience held up hand hearts, Joji ended the set by holding the last words of the track to lift the microphone stand up high in the air, screaming his love for Toronto one last time.

You didn’t think that was the end, right? Come on, I expected better from you.

The audience did not move one bit, chanting for “Filthy Frank” and “Slow Dance" instead. We all knew what was supposed to happen. Our theories were confirmed when a detached Joji voice proclaimed there was a son—nope, a couple of songs left to play! The pianist came back on stage and started an exquisitely delectable version of the “Slow Dancing in the Dark” intro. As soon as those first words struck, everyone knew what to do. In all the videos I have, the audience was noticeably louder than Joji, and even for an acoustic version, we all lost our collective minds! The isolated vocals and small crowd interactions felt like one of the only truly intimate moments throughout the concert. Joji vocally riffed across certain notes, deviating from the original recording. The song in this new rendition felt like he was in complete control of it all.

But that’s when he hit us with the kicker. As he held the last note on the acoustic version, the soaring synths of the original instrumental started to rise. Yep! It was an encore WITHIN an encore! He pressed the soundboard button that played “I’m horny as fuck right now." The audience giggled, immediately turning their attention sing the entire song with Joji again! A galaxy background lit up the stage and an inflatable raft was passed around amongst the crowd. The raft was tonally out-of-place, but it was a fun addition simply because it’s a RAFT at an indoor R&B concert. I think adding both versions of the song to the end of the setlist was a nice surprise. It gave me a sense of closure—especially for a shorter setlist like this.

You thought it was over? Really? Come on, again? He’s gotta be contractually obligated to play the TikTok song 88rising promoted the hell out of. All the conspiracies about the state of Joji’s 88rising contract aside (he made Smithereens to get out of it, by the way), “Glimpse of Us” is not one of his most creative songs, but his most narratively coherent. It’s his most satisfyingly raw track, and an arguably digestible sense of simplicity works hand-in-hand with Joji’s monotone, lifeless vocals. It was the most natural progression after the more pop-oriented sound of Nectar—a complete catharsis, and a culmination of his vocal work. The elegant piano arpeggios and hard-hitting chord progressions on the chorus just work so well in a live setting. Every word in the chorus was not just sung—it was relented, it was screamed, and it was emotionally charged. Did anyone care that they were singing badly? No. We were all there basking at the moment, unable to control ourselves. The energy never died, even during the final moments of the last chorus.

As the Joji logo lit up, Joji screamed “TORONTO!” one last time again. Loads of people around me were freaking out, saying “I could die happy now” or “AHHHHHHH.” For a huge bulk of the crowd, this concert was something special—especially due to Joji not being able to perform in Toronto during COVID. This was, for a lot of Torontonian Joji stans, their first time seeing him live in the flesh. Despite how large and rabid the audience was, they all were respectful. There was no pushing and no unnecessary screaming, and I’ve never had a more perfect concert from top to bottom than this. I love Joji, and thinking back to both nights, I cry a little because I know that the concert made me and every attendee happy.

Joji is such a prolific artist. He may produce commercial music, but he's different. There’s an energy to him that’s him—and while I would have loved more deep cuts from Nectar or even In Tongues, the show felt so meticulously planned and catered to what he wanted. With the space he was given, he was able to do so many fun little theatrics and skits, making it feel down-to-earth. Memes and jokes aside, he also successfully played some of the most endearing songs you’ll ever hear live. Joji is a perennial star and will always have my heart no matter what kind of music he decides to do after his 88Rising contract. Smithereens and this concert only cemented it, and I know and believe that he'll only go up from here.