Then, JoJo was just an innocent, inexperienced 13-year-old when she sang, "Get out / Right now / It's the end of you and me" so powerfully it brought chills to even the most anti-pop listener. But while eating spicy Ethiopian doro wat with our hands at a dimly lit restaurant in New York's Hell's Kitchen last month, we laughed at the fact that — back in 2004 — neither of us had any idea that one day we'd both be able to say we had actually "kicked a motherfucker out of the house."
Yes, during a September interview over lunch ahead of her new album Mad Love, out October 14, JoJo and I got to talking about fuckboys. But before we get to the juicy stuff, let's start with what's most important thing: JoJo is back, y'all.
Well, allow me to rephrase. You see, JoJo actually never really left. Since the release of her chart-topping sophomore studio album 10 years ago, the singer has released a handful of popular EPs, mixtapes, and singles, including 2011's "Disaster" and a cover of Drake's "Marvin's Room" that quickly went viral.
But a years-long legal battle with her original record label, Blackground Records, is the reason you haven't heard new JoJo music on the radio since about 2006. Despite losing their ability to distribute music, the label kept the singer frozen in her contract, forcing her to sue — not once, but twice. It wasn't until 2014 that JoJo finally found lawyers who were able to find a loophole in her ironclad Blackground deal: A minor cannot be held in a contract for more than seven years. It had been 10 since a 12-year-old JoJo had been signed.
"I cried deep sobs when I won the lawsuit, because I’d been told all those years that I should go do something else," JoJo, whose given name is Joanna Levesque, says. "People would tell me ‘You’re a smart girl, why don’t you just go to college?’ And I was like, what are you talking about? This is what I’ve been doing since I was a little girl — I can’t just give up because of these jerks. I wouldn’t have fought this hard if I didn’t love this shit.”
I’m still young and single and stupid. But I’m also smart and savvy and I can be a host of contradictions because, at 25, that’s who I am.
It took separating — both in business and in her personal life — for the pair to eventually make their relationship work. "Now, we're closer than ever," JoJo says. But finally getting her freedom and signing a new record deal with Atlantic Records didn't mean making a new album was easy. The artist had been creating music for years, but for legal reasons, JoJo couldn't use any of her previously recorded music on her new project.
"I was like, ‘Yo, I’ve already said so much that people will never be able to hear! Am I supposed to just, like, say it again?’" she says. "But thankfully, life continues on and is always giving you inspiration if you keep your eyes open."
Unfortunately for JoJo, life went in a unexpected direction when her father passed away at age 60. Father and daughter had just recently begun to repair their relationship, which had long been strained because of his substance abuse issues. Her ode to him, "Music," is the first song on the new album — and the last one she recorded.
"My father is the only loss I’ve ever dealt with," she says. "Even though he had his demons and I had mine — everybody does — we could always laugh about music, we could sing, we could harmonize...music was always consistent." The resulting song is a stirring piano ballad with JoJo crooning through tears: "Went on the road to make my daddy proud / But I lost him and so I sang to the crowd / My only hope is that he's looking down, thinkin' / Oh my God, my daughter's doin' it now."
Though the rest of Mad Love is a mix of slow and uptempo tunes, JoJo manages to channel the same soulful passion from "Music" into the rest of the project, which was mostly written while she took a week of silence at a house in Malibu, CA, in January. The final product is, of course, a bit more grown-up than her teenage efforts, a fact that I'm sure the nearly 800,000 Twitter followers who have been supporting her for years will be happy to hear.
"It’s more mature, but not in a like, married-lady type way," says JoJo. "I’m still young and single and stupid. But I’m also smart and savvy and I can be a host of contradictions because, at 25, that’s who I am. So I think it’s sexy and honest and imperfect and that's okay. I’m comfortable with being all of that.”
"This album is mostly about three relationships," she confesses. "The song 'Cold' is about my ex, who I found out was cheating after I broke up with him. He then got engaged and had her pregnant within three months."
Ouch. Here, there is some off-the-record commiserating about how hard it can be to stay strong and not fall back into old patterns with our exes. (One of JoJo's was actually partially responsible for our meeting spot for this interview. "The first time I ate Ethiopian was with an Ethiopian guy I was seeing," she tells me. "I fell in love with the food. Left the man, kept the palate.”)
She's refreshingly un-coy about how these experiences influenced the record, adding that, while she'll never name names, she's also never hesitated to write about her personal life. "A few songs on the album are about the boyfriend that I broke up with before I went on tour last year. And 'Honest' is about a guy I was dating who found out I was still seeing my ex. He was very upset, even though I know he was still dating other people. I’m certainly not the heartbreak queen, but I’ve had my heart broken and I've done my share of dirt, so I put that all out there."
Throughout the record's rich blend of R & B, reggae, and pop ("I don't mind people referring to my music as pop; that just means popular!"), JoJo's signature, slightly raspy soaring alto sounds stronger than ever. And on a compilation of 15 tunes, there are only three features, from Wiz Khalifa, Alessia Cara, and Remy Ma. The Remy collaboration, "Fake Ass Bitches," is one of my favorite tracks, with a chorus that begins, "Fake ass bitches / When they smile in your face / But behind you it ain't well wishes..."
Obviously, I ask what, or who, inspired the song.
I’m for Amber Rose’s brand of feminism, I’m for a Catholic housewife's brand of feminism — like, do what you want to do.
But JoJo is quick to show love to her actual friends, a group of "young, single career women" she likes to go out with in Los Angeles to check out live music, try new restaurants, or go for walks with her terrier mix, Agape. "I love us. But it’s not a fucking girl squad," she says. "It’s just real friends, going through real life.”
As JoJo's voice — just as sultry and alluring when she speaks as when she sings — gets increasingly impassioned on topics like friendship and empowerment, I inevitably land on our culture's buzziest question of the moment: Are you a feminist?
"There’s no doubt," she says. "I don’t really understand when women are like, ‘Well, I don’t consider myself a feminist, because I want equality for everyone.’ Can't you still believe in or fight for many things and still call yourself a feminist? I’m for Amber Rose’s brand of feminism, I’m for a Catholic housewife's brand of feminism — like, do what you want to do. Whatever women want to do, I think they can and should do it."
After opening a tour for Fifth Harmony this summer, JoJo will be back on the road next year for her own solo shows. “To be in those arenas bridging the gap between some of Fifth Harmony's younger fans and the girls who grew up listening to my music was a really great platform for me to get back out there and reintroduce myself to people, plus make some new fans, so I can't wait to get to performing," she says.
So does JoJo ever get tired of performing her teenage self's "Too Little Too Late" or "Leave"?
"I perform them all the time. I want to make people feel good and take them down memory lane," she says. "And the songs take on a different meaning for me now than when I was 13, 15. Back then, I wasn’t this experienced woman with scars and cellulite and strong vibes. Now, I actually have kicked a motherfucker out of the house. So it’s fun!”