In 2004, a 13-year-old girl in a tank top declaring “Boys Stink” burst onto the scene with “Leave (Get Out),” an irresistibly catchy pop-R&B hybrid track about a cheating boyfriend. The Foxborough, Massachusetts, native born Joanna Noëlle Levesque had transformed into JoJo: a brash barely-teenager with the vocals of a much older singer, and the youngest female solo artist in history to top the Billboard Pop Songs charts.
“Too Little Too Late,” the first single from her second studio album The High Road, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, cementing JoJo’s status as a voice to be reckoned with, rather than a novelty one-hit wonder. “Having two hit singles before the age of 15 made me a perfectionist to the point of paralysis,” JoJo tells NYLON. An only child raised by a single mother with no ties to the entertainment world, JoJo navigated the music industry while trying to grow up at the same time. A legal standstill with the musical prodigy’s first label, Blackground Records, was followed by other starts and stops. Eventually, people began asking, “Whatever happened to JoJo?”
Ahead of the May 1 release of her fourth studio album, good to know — a confident declaration of her vocal prowess that fits neatly into 2020’s new R&B landscape — JoJo reflects on her musical journey thus far in her own words, which you can read in full below.
JoJo: I sued my first record label for the first time when I was 18. That's when I realized that we couldn’t come to an agreement by just talking it out. I just wanted to put out music — I did not care at all about making a profit from it; I just wanted to keep myself creatively alive and also have a relationship with my fans. I was like, OK, if my third album, Jumping Trains, can't come out, then I want to put together something that I really love in a nontraditional way. So I took a page out of what I saw people in rap doing, and started putting out mixtapes. The first one was called Can't Take That Away From Me, and it made me feel powerful to have it be that title. It felt good for me artistically because I art-directed the packaging and got the photographer together and styled it and did my hair and makeup and had a vision for how I wanted everything to look.
That was a real liberation for me because from the age of 13, I was heavily, heavily directed. I remember for my first single cover, or maybe it was the album, there was someone who thought I should be on a Razor scooter. I just didn't relate to that or want that. From a young age, it was "everything that you do or wear is not fully your own."
Now looking back, I didn't realize how much outside influence did affect me. I think I was made to feel like I was empowered, but that was not necessarily what was really going on. I felt like I was very much being myself, but ideas were kind of put into my head, and then I felt like they were mine.
Before I signed my deal, I was so enterprising and creative by myself. I was hand-making things, and I was putting hats out on the street and singing in Boston and Providence. I made little TV shows. I love doing things by myself. Making mixtapes got me back to that spirit of before that outside influence came in.
It's such a bummer to even think about because Jumping Trains was such a good album. Legally, I can't release it because I recorded it under the contract with Blackground. And I am really good at keeping it moving. I accept things. I want to leave that alone. I don't want to engage them, I don't want to ask them for anything, I just want to move forward. In my late 20s now, it would feel so strange to revisit something from when I was 18 or 19, as far as putting that out or rerecording it. I've already done that with two albums. I'm not a piece of nostalgia.
I don't have answers as to why it didn't come out. All I know is that they stopped being a functioning record label. They stopped having an office ... I started to hear a lot of wild sh*t going on, some stuff that was even scary, some stuff that was definitely beyond anything that I had grown up being privy to. [Editor's note: Blackground was founded by the late Aaliyah's uncle, Barry Hankerson. Aaliyah's artistic catalog, recorded under Blackground, is similarly not available on any streaming or digital platforms. Much has been written about the fate of Blackground Records and its musical archives.]
The album was going to be a great bridge from the child that I started as into the young woman I was becoming. It was like a fork in the road, that's what Jumping Trains was. It was me exploring whether I wanted to have a more traditional life with this boyfriend that I was with. He was very sweet and Southern, and I could've had the comfort of that family that I had longed for. Or I could break off on my own, and move to L.A., and be the curious young woman that I also was. That's the decision I ultimately made — to explore my curiosity and move to L.A. because I felt like I was settling a little bit in that relationship. That's what Jumping Trains was overall exploring — coming of age.
That was a real turning point for me as a writer, too. At 12, I wrote “Keep On Keepin’ On,” on my first album, by myself. That wasn't the first song I had written totally by myself, but it was the first one that was published. But with Jumping Trains, I was a part of every song co-writing, and that's when I really learned about collaboration in a 360 type of way, from concepts to melodies and lyrics and production and seeing it all the way through to mix.
After I put out Can't Take That Away From Me, I put out my “Marvin's Room” remix. Then I put out my Agape mixtape, which took a much more organic, experimental approach.
Then I put out Mad Love with Atlantic. The original A&R that I was going to do the album with, Aaron [Bay-Schuck], who is now the CEO of Warner and who I'm now in partnership with, left Atlantic. Then I was appointed a new A&R who I just never gelled with. We did not understand each other, we did not speak the same language. I felt misunderstood and I didn't feel heard. It wasn't the right fit. So I had to fight way harder than I feel I should have to even get the songs that were important to me on the album. I made a few compromises that aren't catastrophic by any means — I'm proud of Mad Love — but I realized some things that I can and cannot live with creatively.
Being a young woman in the music industry, and starting out as young as I did, people think they know better than you. People look at statistics and they're like, "Well, this is what worked for you, so that's what we need to give the people," or, "This is what's working right now, and you can do anything so why don't you just do what's working right now?"
Being a young woman in the music industry, people think they know better than you.
I think that people — meaning the suits and executives, and people who have jobs at labels who aren't creative — sometimes have to say something to feel like they were a part of the making of something. I don't think that my experience is that unique. You will be met with some resistance, especially if you are a young woman, and especially if you don't come from money or you don't come from a showbiz family, and you haven't yet proven that you are a creative force of your own.
I did feel like I had to remake a case for myself, and re-establish who I am, and essentially say, "This is me. Do you love me still?" It was a vulnerable thing. I don't know if other artists feel this way, but sometimes I feel like I live in a bubble and don't really know what the reception of things are. I don't seek out the detractors or the people who don't dig it. So I see a feedback loop of positivity, which can be uplifting, but also maybe not entirely true.
I did see some comments about music I was putting out. It was like, "She moved away from R&B. Where's the soul?" I really wanted to explore dance music, but that wasn't the way I wanted to explore it. I love deep house, soul, I love bottom, I need bass. And I think [the music I was making] was missing that. It didn't satisfy me, so the reception wasn't good enough for me, personally, you know.
I think I find momentary satisfaction, and then I release that, and then I'm like, "OK, I know I still haven't made my best music yet." I love the idea of acceptance and not striving and not wanting for more. That's not my normal base, though. I don't often impress myself, so I want to. And I got an opportunity to do that with this album. I was like, there's a few things that I'm going to have to fight for, and I might fall on this sword, and if you think it's too left for me to have Thundercat playing bass on a song, then you don't understand me.
I think something that I've come to accept for real — not everything is for everyone. With my last album, and with the three singles I put out before that, I really wanted to be something for everyone. And that's deep, and that stems from childhood stuff, even outside of career. I'm still working on that with my therapist. But I'm OK with doing sh*t that I really stand by, and knowing that it will reverberate and attract the people who it resonates with. That's all I can control.
I cannot mind trick you into being my fan. That's wack. It's so wack, and it feels so dissatisfying, and it keeps me up at night.
I think, also, having that type of achievement from a young age, I was like, "Well, I should put my trust into other people creatively because I didn't write either of those songs, so maybe I can't." Getting that information from a young age is just interesting. It's neither good nor bad, it just is what it is.
For my new album good to know, I went into the studio with [“The Box” producer] 30 Roc. After I went in with him, I felt like I had the final little bow on it, and that's a song called “Comeback.” We did a few songs together, but I wanted a really nasty, freaky song, and I got that. The production is really hot, too.
Then, I had written several versions of the arc because I didn't want it to just be song, song, song, song, song. I wanted it to make sense to the journey that I was on, which started with someone who was so deeply uncomfortable with herself and wanted to lose herself in love and sex and substances. Really the album is about escapism, starting with just not wanting to be present with myself, and wanting to lose myself in experiences and lovers. Then toward the end, being like, "B*tch, you're still here. Life isn't easy, life is weird, and it's OK. You are OK. You don't need anything other than yourself. You are enough just as you are."
That's probably a loop that I'll have to make many times over, but that's why I like the digestibility of the length of this album. For me personally, I've been on that journey several times over now, and I just believe it more than ever — that I'm proud of where I am, and I'm not ashamed of where I've been or who I've been because it's been out of survival.
I would say wherever soul is, that is where I want to be. R&B has obviously changed throughout the years, from when I started listening to it. I was introduced through my mom playing Motown records and stuff. R&B of the late '60s is so different from R&B today. Now we have more alternative, vibey, auto-tune influence, Trap & B, stuff like that. But I absolutely love and respect the culture of black music, and I consider myself very fortunate to be a guest in the culture.
I love hip hop, I love R&B, I love neo soul, I love jazz. I also like folk, I also like singer/songwriter-y type stuff. But I like music that makes me feel something, whether it makes me feel sexy, or empowered, or cool. That's how TLC's CrazySexyCool makes me feel. Kehlani makes me feel that way. Cool, confident, dope, fly.
I also love the range of R&B. I think it's such a bummer when people are like, "Oh, there's no good R&B music anymore." Like, are you looking for it? Are you listening? There are so many ill representations of it. People might not want to classify themselves as R&B because it is quite limiting. I don't like the idea of genres either. We just need to recognize where it comes from, though, and give credit to the origin story of it. It's such an American genre, and it's so multifaceted. I can think of so many great R&B artists, from Ari Lennox, to Kehlani, to PJ Morton, to Phony Ppl, Cleo Sol, Snoh Aalegra, Sinéad Harnett. There are so many people making great R&B music. I also like the chord changes, I actually could go on a lot about it!
There's a desire now for things that are less formulaic, and I think Bruno Mars helped push that forward. Even though he has great hooks, and really sticky lyrics and everything, I think that his musicianship really shifted the culture, and pushed things forward. I think the same with H.E.R. They're forcing artists to try a little bit harder. R&B doesn't need to be niche; it can be mainstream. Being a part of this in 2020 is very humbling because I see so much excellence around me, and it just makes me want to keep my blinders on and see how I can level up. I'm just in the game with myself.
I hope this album encourages people to go inward and go on their own journey. It's called good to know because I was like, "D*mn b*tch, you are oversharing. That is some TMI." Some of it is very journal excerpt-y, so I hope that prompts somebody to do their own, what's the phrase, inventory of their own behavior, and see if there are any ways in which they're trying to escape themselves.
So this album is for people who like to get a little emo, who like sensuality, who like hard-*ss beats. And really, I just want to make music that speaks to where I'm at right now. I think that's my responsibility as an artist. And I was very much influenced by going to strip clubs while I was in the studio, when I was in Toronto and Atlanta. So there's a few songs that I would like to see girls dance to, you know what I mean? I enjoy that sh*t. I'm making music for enjoyment, for satisfaction, and also for introspection.
JoJo's fourth studio album, good to know, is out May 1, 2020.