Before the pandemic hit, JoJo was gearing up for a totally normal album release. She was set to travel to major cities for interviews and performances in support of her new album Good to Know, including New York where we were going to chat over breakfast. Instead, we’re chatting over FaceTime, and she’s been performing almost daily on various live-streaming platforms. (Luckily, her powerful vocals soar over even the weakest of Wi-Fi connections.)
The album arrives May 1, but with the foreseeable future virtually unplannable, what will she do on her coveted release day?
“Oh honey, I have no fucking idea. I'll probably make myself a cocktail, probably live stream with my fans,” JoJo says from the comfortable environment of her Los Angeles home. She’s living with her mother, Diana Levesque, whom she’s quite close with: at one point in our conversation, Diana chimes in from another room as if her daughter’s on the phone with a longtime friend.
For an artist who was unable to release music for nearly a decade due to a much-publicized dispute with her previous label, Blackground Records, through which she achieved her early-2000s hits “(Leave) Get Out” and “Too Little Too Late,” one might think JoJo’s bummed by the shift in plans. “I’m actually doing okay mentally and emotionally...but it does feel strange,” the singer, 29, reveals. “I’m not gonna be like, ‘Oh my God. It’s so fucked up,’ ‘cause it’s fucked up for everybody.”
It helps that Good to Know explores deep inner dialogues of love, lust, and longing through an overarching theme of escapism. “It's very much what a lot of us are going through right now, whether it was an intention set or not,” she says of the project. For JoJo, to even have a record coming out is a feat in itself.
The later years of her Blackground deal, which she’s “100% sick of talking about,” consisted of her turning in multiple finished albums that went unreleased. Unable to release commercial music independently, she self-released mixtapes (Can’t Take That Away From Me  and Agapé ) online for free. The experimental R&B-leaning projects kept JoJo in touch with her fans and hinted at a different musical direction for her next major release, which became highly anticipated once she was released from her contract in 2014 following a lengthy legal battle.
After achieving legal freedom, she was quickly signed as an artist to Atlantic Records by her then-A&R representative Aaron Bay-Schuck, who notably discovered and signed Bruno Mars. But he left the label while she was working on her long-awaited third album, the pop-heavy Mad Love., which left JoJo in a different kind of label limbo.
“I felt like a shell of myself,” she says of the time she spent promoting the 2016 album and its singles (“Fuck Apologies” featuring Wiz Khalifa and “FAB” featuring Remy Ma). “I felt like I'd been up against such resistance, and I just didn't have it within me to fight for songs that I really felt more passionately about than others. It's all the political stuff that went on behind the scenes that unfortunately impacted my experience and the result,” she shares, noting that despite the difficulties, she’s proud of the project.
The following year, she left Atlantic and signed to Warner Records (where Bay-Schuck is now CEO) with her own imprint, Clover Music, which finally allowed her the creative freedom to reshape her narrative. Her first order of business was an unconventional one: to re-record and re-release her first two albums, JoJo (2004) and The High Road (2006), which were unavailable on streaming platforms due to their ownership by Blackground.
“I had no idea how it was gonna shake out, but I knew I wanted to do something that would make me feel like the captain of my own life,” she admits. But the releases were a success: through streams and sales, she’s already recouped all production costs.
With her legacy properly preserved, and her music finally back in her control, she was ready to work on a new album. Her personal life was also filled with drama, which made for perfect writing material––and resulted in her most introspective work to date. “I feel like, go vulnerable or go home. I had beat myself up for so long about some of my actions in my previous relationship, because I cheated and ended up hurting my best friend,” she divulges. “I was really angry and having trouble forgiving myself, so I wrote through it.”
She takes listeners through her personal journey on confessional tracks like “So Bad,” an invitation for a forbidden lover to a sneaky, drunken hookup (“I’ll be in a trenchcoat, back of the bar at the Chateau”) and “Pedialyte,” in which she regrets the tryst the next day (“Excuse my behavior; swear I’m never gonna drink again”). Her silky, powerful voice rides minimalist beats provided by hitmaker producers Doc McKinney, 30 Roc, and Lido.
Lighthearted moments peak through the album’s depths, especially on lead single, “Man,” a self-described “cocky, cute bop” that (contrary to the lyrics in the hook) isn’t about needing a man, but feeling confident without one. In contrast, “Small Things” is an acoustic track about the difficulty of swallowing feelings. Over the tight nine-song tracklist, she explores the shame, lust, loneliness, and acceptance of self-destructive romance. And fans shouldn’t fret at the brevity––more music from JoJo is set to drop later this year. (“I haven’t told anybody that, so I hope I don’t get in trouble.”)
Bookended by an intro (“Bad Habits”) and an outro (“Proud,” which samples an uplifting speech from her mother) on the full-length version, JoJo created Good to Know as “an experience” rather than just a body of work. “All my favorite artists do that, from Kendrick Lamar, to Drake, to Jill Scott,” she details. Sonically and structurally, the album more closely resembles her Agapé mixtape than any of her label-released projects.
“The spirit is the same,” she agrees, thanks in part to the artistic license she’s awarded by her joint venture with Warner.
Releasing a record during a global crisis is certainly a tough situation to navigate for any artist. Dua Lipa released her latest album a week early, while Lady Gaga has pushed the release of Chromatica until later this year. While Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and new albums by The Weeknd and Lil Uzi Vert have performed well, music streaming is down overall. JoJo’s Good to Know Tour has already been postponed to the end of the year, but as experts predict mass gatherings won’t return until 2021, the tour’s fate is up in the air. In the meantime, she’s figuring out how to create visuals to accompany and further promote the album.
Her first attempt is the glossy, distantly-shot outdoor clip for the aptly-titled “Lonely Hearts,” which dropped April 27. (“I’m liking being alone; emotions under control,” she sings on the track.) While a video for “Small Things” is also ready for release, everything beyond that remains unclear. In her downtime, JoJo’s been learning to pole dance, and her current plan is to order a pole and practice from home for a future video, whenever and however she’s able to make it. “It is what it is,” she says. In JoJo’s eyes, the album’s success isn’t calculated by streams or chart placements––only by what her fans think.
“I want people to listen to it over and over again, and for them to go inward on their own journey. I want them to have their favorite songs. I want them to be sung back to me. I want them to incorporate the lyrics into their lives, and their captions. That's success to me,” she says earnestly.
Considering that her fanbase is especially devoted, as they’ve endured the ups and downs of JoJo's career alongside her, she’s bound to achieve that success. The fact that she’s delivered her strongest work for them to connect with is merely a bonus.