By Trent Warner
CALGARY – After a decade of record-label drama, hundreds of written, recorded, and scrapped songs, and a myriad of personal problems, former pop star JoJo released Mad Love in fall 2016. It was her first full-length album since 2006’s The High Road, which featured her standout hit “Too Little Too Late.” Contrary to popular knowledge, she released a series of successful, critically acknowledged mix-tapes and EPs in the period since. If you haven’t heard from her, it’s because you just weren’t paying attention.
So why the wait? JoJo’s always been about the music, but after signing to a label and finding commercial success so young (her debut single “Leave (Get Out)” made her the youngest solo artist to have a number one hit in the United States, at the precarious age of 13-years-old), her previous label slept on her, unsure of what to do. Despite her best efforts, her music was unable to reach the light of day (if you care enough, search #FREEJOJO – a campaign ignited by her devoted fans). In 2014, she was finally freed.
“There’s a huge difference between making an album at 12 and an album at 24; more freedom, more experience, more confidence, and more trust,” says the artist on the phone before her sound check in Norfolk, Virginia.
Her voice is hoarse, a testament to her work ethic and gruelling tour schedule. Throughout our conversation, her utter commitment to her fans, her work, and her music is obvious.
During the lead up to what would become Mad Love, JoJo went through a break-up, lost her father, and returned from a tour in support of her EP III. While it was a struggle, and she still had to compromise with her new label, she is now able to advocate for herself and take the reins. As a result, Mad Love has something for everyone, representing the entire praxis of modern pop and RnB. There’s dancehall hues, bubble-gum sweetness, strong dismissals of bad friends and ex-boyfriends, and ballads that flex JoJo’s impeccable vocal muscle. All of it is reflective of her diverse influences, which she’s shown glimpses of throughout her long career.
“I grew up with everything from Catholic Church music to blues, musical theatre, and hip-hop,” she says. “I keep Joni Mitchell, D’Angelo, Aretha Franklin and the Phantom of the Opera on the same pedestal.”
Her album plays somewhere between hard and soft, possibly best represented through two of its parallel guest spots, which include hip-hop heavyweight Remy Ma (“FAB”), and Canadian pop-starlet Alessia Cara (“I Can Only”). JoJo had Ma in mind for “FAB,” which uses a throbbing guitar line and guttural vocals to dismiss fake friends.
Cara was the first person JoJo played the album for, and she immediately asked to for the aforementioned feature. The parallels here are obvious: they are both two young pop stars who popped off with their first single, either destined to fade or continue to shine.
“It definitely wasn’t a conscious choice. My nature is the same juxtaposition, my nature informed the choices made on the album more than anything.”
Rising in conjunction with similar teen stars, it would have been easy, or even expected, for JoJo to crumble under the pressure. She credits the people around her: her family, her friends, her team and her manager (two of whom came from her previous label), for keeping her in check.
Over that ten-year period where she struggled to get out of her recording contract, it was the investment of the aforementioned that kept her going. Regardless, she made the decision not to let her story end there.
As she says, she “took what could have been a period and turned it into an ellipsis…”
So, finally, she’s back with new music and a renewed energy. Fans of her early work shouldn’t worry about missing out on those classics, though. She hasn’t forgotten her roots and is always eager to please her long time fans.
“There’s definitely moments to dance, reflect, and put your middle fingers up.”
JoJo performs May 10 at the Burton Cummings Theatre (Winnipeg), May 11 at the Ranch Roadhouse (Edmonton), May 12 at the Palace Theatre (Calgary) and May 13 at the Vogue Theatre (Vancouver).Burton Cummings Theatre, JoJo, Ranch Roadhouse, The Vogue Theatre