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This Time, Jojo Is Back — Without a Vengeance

Jojo singing in a mic at the OUt100 event.

I will never forget when I first saw Jojo angstily walk through her school’s hallway, lip glossed and all, for the video of the now-iconic song “Leave (Get Out).” Like Jojo, I grew up just outside of Boston, and was truly amazed to see a hometown girl make it to the big leagues. Her powerhouse voice—a miracle I’d get to witness more recently at our magazine’s Out100 event—is a force to be reckoned with.

That’s why I joined many of the Jojo stans in frustration and disbelief when all of her music seemingly evaporated from the internet—after years of her being unable to release any new albums. Jojo’s complicated legal drama prompted the hashtag #FreeJojo on Twitter, which helped to unveil the ramifications to artists when predatory contracts and label politics are involved. In Jojo’s case, Blackground Records’ effectively lost their distribution deal with Interscope, which created a snowball effect, culminating in their artists’ discographies being wiped from streaming services earlier this year. Jojo, for her part, may have had it worse than her labelmates: She was just 12 years old when she signed a seven-album contract, locking her voice and her rights to a label that was hellbent on silencing her.

Now, however, Jojo appears poised for her true return. After re-recording all her old music and releasing it into the world (a clever legal loophole that Taylor Swift is rumored to be considering), her newest album is set for a 2020 debut. But if you think she’s back with a vengeance, you should think again: When I meet Jojo, she is relaxed, calm, introspective—hardly the firecracker I had gotten to know from those MTV days. This new body of work is less about settling a score with the world or the industry that wronged her—but, she reveals, more about learning to forgive herself after all the chaos. 

Her latest single, “Sabotage,” which features Chika, seems to convey the appropriate mood and vibe for Jojo’s new sound. Ahead of the video’s release (and her performance at our Out100 party), I caught up with the singer about all the glory that’s about to come. 

So what can you tell me about your forthcoming album?

It's taken me 28 years to get to this point, and it's just been a really weird fucking road. This album is me looking at myself and being like, "Bitch, what are you doing?" I think because I felt so out of control with my career, I've tried to control my personal relationships. And I felt so powerless in my professional life that I needed to feel like I was big and bad, I guess, in my relationships. So, I developed these patterns of lying, cheating, and seeking validation. I'm exploring a lot of that in the album.

What caused this moment of introspection?

 I cheated on my best friend who was my partner, and it turned my world upside down. After turning 25, I started to be like, "Hey, you're really an adult now." It was just one of those catastrophic life events where I [decided] I want to be someone that I can be proud of. Yes, I work hard. Yes, I'm a great friend. Yes, I mean well, but I also can really hurt someone. He cut me off—you know, did not speak to me—for a year and a half. And this album is really me processing all of that, along with the guilt, shame, and embarrassment from my professional stuff, too. Realizing that I wanted to get out of my mind with alcohol, and that as much as I could blame my behavior on alcohol or substances or anything, it was really from a deep-rooted feeling of not feeling good about myself, not feeling worthy. I think when you're famous so young, you get a skewed sense of self. That’s not to say the whole album is that painful. I just feel more comfortable being transparent than trying to be a perfect pop star, because I tried to do that a few years ago, and it was incredibly unsatisfying on all fronts. So, I just want to make music that I really dig. 

When you say you wanted to be the perfect pop star a few years ago, are you talking about the Mad Love era?

 I felt so grateful to be out of the legal situation that I was in. I felt like I was never ever going to get out of this. So then when I got into this new deal with Atlantic—I don't want to bad mouth Atlantic, there's just no reason to—it was kind of like, if you don't release this, we won't put anything out. And I went into a mode where I was not being an artist anymore. I was more figuring out how to spin something so I could believe it, so then I could perform it. But I am proud of Mad Love as a whole body of work. I'm not proud of some of the decisions...or some of the compromises I made.

Got it. And, after Mad Love is when you re-recorded your first two albums. Did you do that because you felt like you had to finish that chapter more neatly? 

It kind of stemmed from social media and me seeing fans or just people who might not particularly be fans, but they were curious about why they can't hear “Too Little Too Late,” or “Leave” or any of my songs they might want to hear. And it seemed like the message that they were getting from it not being available was that I took the music off [the internet]—that I just didn't want my old music on there, which is not the case. None of [former label] BlackGround’s artists have music available—that's Aaliyah, that's Tank, that's me, that's Playa, Timbaland, and Magoo. Anybody from that era. I was just thinking about how awful it is for Aaliyah's fans and her legacy and her family. And the songwriters and producers that are still here—that they don't get to enjoy the music and also reap the rightful benefits of it, which is publishing royalties and streaming. But what I understood from my contract was that they owned the masters—however, if we created new masters, then that could be something I control.

And what did that entail?

So that meant that I would need to recut all the vocals, reproduce the songs, and get all the info for the songwriters and producers and stuff. I had the blessing of all the creators to do it. And then, within a period of a couple of weeks, I recorded the vocals. I really thought people might think it was a horrible idea, think it was whack, think it was being revisionist. I was actually floored at the response that it got.

So, once you finished that project, did you feel like you could close that chapter? And then, start this new one?

Yeah. Because shortly after I finished that, I started writing for this new album. And, it's cool that it didn't overlap. I wasn't writing while I was doing that old stuff. it did feel a bit cathartic. It was necessary without me realizing that it was necessary.

Starting this new project, you're focusing on these themes that are about your personal growth that you've exhibited over the past three years. I just think that it's a really poetic parallel, that you had to close your chapter on your history, professionally. And now, you're working again on a professional project that represents an immense personal growth that you've exhibited over the past few years. 

It's nice to hear that perspective. Thank you for that illumination.

So this epiphany for you about this personal evolution happened after your partner was like, "We're done."

Yeah. Like I said, it's before that line of demarcation—BC/AD. That's kind of how I feel.

So this is Jojo AD?

Yes.

So, what's happening with the sound, then? In Jojo AD?

It's definitely R&B focused, starting with sick baselines, and doing a lot of freestyles over that. Starting with the flow of the narrative from a stream of consciousness, and then going back and trying different things. This has been a really cool exercise in learning how to collaborate.  I just wanted to make shit that me and my friends loved, and wanted to listen to. And, I wanted it to feel cohesive, like a journey. The albums I love are things we put on and obviously not have to skip. Nothing jars you. Nothing takes you out at the moment. You're able to really go along on a journey. The Love Below is a great outline for me of a perfect album, in my opinion. OutKast’s Andre 3000, do you know that album? I fucking love it. I'm obsessed. And then, also Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds. I think the way that they had such a cool synthesis of inspiration, and created such a unique sound that really changed radio. That's always something that's in my mind.

Are there certain lyrics on any of the songs that really are speaking to you, at this moment in time? Is there anything that's been written, that you've been working on, that you feel like captures what it is you're going for? I don't know how much you can reveal.

“I'm getting good at holding it in. All my emotions, all my feelings, but the more that I fight them, the bigger they seem. What really kills me is all the small things.” So, that's about a relationship, but it's also just about how we compartmentalize our feelings and that shit really becomes toxic.

What had your journey been like outside of the creation of art? What does self care look like for you? What does therapy look like for you? Did you stop drinking? You mentioned drinking and substances. Did that get cut out of your life?

 Yeah, I've been talking to the same therapist since I was 21, I think. So, it's been really cool to have this seven year journey with her because she's like, "Oh, that's old Jo or that's crazy Jo, that's fighting in the streets Jo."

That's Jo BC.

That's Jo BC. And it's nice that she can remind me of where I've been. And I used to have a prejudice against antidepressants, but I've been on them now for probably seven years, so that prejudice has dissipated. I think I just felt like, perhaps, because of my mom's own struggles mentally and emotionally over the years, I just felt like I never understood. I was so busy in my teenage years, and I wasn't depressed, and I wasn't empathetic or compassionate to what she was going through. But now that we're both grown women, I understand. I don't think there's anything wrong with prioritizing, taking care of yourself. I just think our generation, we need to think about not just ourselves, but how can we make the one, not you, but the collective. 

Do you think music does that?

I do. The way it brings people together is so powerful. And yeah, it's almost like voodoo, you know? There's something so magical about that energy of a live show, you know?

And you got to see this energy through your fans and how they have rallied around you for years. And the way that your fans made the press realize that what you were going through was not just a fight of legal rights, but that this was a fight for a young woman's rights to her own music, and her own voice, and her own ability to have agency over her artistry. Right? 

Absolutely. They showed me, they gave me perspective on my situation that I didn't have and kind of picked me to be exactly what you said—this is deeper than music business stuff. And it was hard for me to have a different vantage point of it, because I was just so fucking sad. I felt so embarrassed for that situation being out of my control. You know what I mean? I couldn't have, I wouldn't have kept going if it wasn't for them.

I saw when Taylor Swift tweeted that thing about her own masters, which is a horrible situation she's in. I remember you quote tweeted and were like, "Yes, sucks, doesn't it?’ 

Yeah. I mean, it would've been nice to have her support. Her army of fans. That would've been helpful.

But you figured it out.

Yes, exactly.

You had your own army.

No tea, no sh—I guess, a little shade. But a minor amount of shade. I hope she figures it out, too. That would be a win. What I think also to keep in mind is that this is big time shit. It's a business, and our art is commodified. Our art is something that can be bought and sold. So, this is just really something for young people who are aspiring to get into the business to take note of. That ownership is extremely important. So I don't know how Taylor's deal was structured or how she's in this situation she's in. It fucking sucks. And, that's all I'm going to say about that. I don't really know. You know, I don't know the ins and outs of everything. I was 12 years old. My mom was cleaning houses at the time. We were taken advantage of.

Right. You know, I have to say, I remember watching your Twitter feed as you attended Northeastern back in Boston, and feeling glad because it seemed as though you had been warmly embraced by your gay fanbase.

 I think I really woke up to the support of the gay community around the time that I sued my label. I was doing club gigs, and there was a lot of support for my mixtapes from LGBTQ fans. I started doing Prides. I started really feeling this energy and the way that individuals would look into my eyes if I met them backstage on the street, like they were really, really relating, or really taking something from my music, from my story. I think that's around the time when I was like 18, 19, 20. 

Well, we do love a woman with a great voice.

That’s so funny. I feel like I sing for my life, for real. I sing because I don't know what to say.

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