When JoJo first emerged in 2003, she was just 13 years old with a fully formed sound that fit nicely into pop and R&B radio markets. So when her first single "Leave (Get Out)," from her self-titled 2004 debut, came on the radio, I, like most teens I grew up with, couldn't believe that such a big voice could belong to someone who was just of junior high school age. As an empowering kiss-off in which JoJo chants "leave!" to a good-for-nothing boy who maybe didn't return her MASH notes in math class, the song was rendered with such conviction that it turned the former America's Most Talented Kids hopeful into a bonafide star, seemingly overnight.
Following a classically American rags-to-riches dream, with her mother managing her career, JoJo left the one-bedroom Massachusetts apartment she was reportedly raised in, and embraced the opportunities ahead. Her song "Leave" quickly rose to top the Billboard Pop Charts — making her, at age 13, the youngest person in history to do so — and ultimately selling more than four million copies worldwide. The precocious teen later gave interviews asserting her artistic confidence and newfound fame, once saying, "When I sing 'Leave (Get Out),' I have been through that. I think it is just a new generation, whether people are ready for it or not. Teenagers are dating. They go through things and that is really what it is about."
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She quickly followed up her whirlwind success with a breezy second single, "Baby It's You," a Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Awards performance, and a high-profile opening slot on Usher's Truth tour in support of his 2004 album Confessions. Then her second album, The High Road, arrived in 2006, with an even catchier, more emotive lead single than her debut. "Too Little Too Late," a R&B-and-pop power ballad, was, like "Leave," similarly about JoJo's refusal to reconcile with an ex who left her wounded. Though it was slower to sell, "Too Little Too Late" surpassed the commercial success of "Leave" by charting internationally. The attention led JoJo, who had acted in smaller TV productions, to star in her first feature-length role alongside a young Emma Roberts in 2006's mermaid-inspired teen comedy, Aquamarine.
Top & Skirt: Valentino
But while riding high as her sophomore album sold more than half a million copies, this is where things get a little fuzzy. When she was writing and recording her third album, JoJo's label, Blackground Records (the former label owned by the late Aaliyah's uncle, Barry Hankerson) became embroiled in a messy legal dispute with the singer that would last years, as she sought release from her record contract. The proceedings would lead to demo leaks, numerous album delays, and a removal of her first two albums from streaming platforms. At one juncture, JoJo filed a suit in 2013 against Blackground and its subsidiary, Da Family, citing "irreparable damages to her professional career." Since she signed her deal in 2004 in New York, when she was a minor, JoJo noted that New York State Law prevents minors from signing contracts that last more than seven years. The suit reached a settlement between both parties, Blackground was eventually sold and is now defunct, and JoJo, who never stopped singing, released covers, one-off singles, and a raw mixtape in the middle of all this. But when she was finally free from her label, JoJo unleashed in 2016 what ultimately became her third studio album, Mad Love, on Atlantic Records.
And since then, JoJo has been working to reclaim the music that made her famous. Over the holidays last year, she released newly re-recorded and reproduced versions of her first two albums after teasing snippets on social media. The recordings present a 28-year-old JoJo singing her early hits with the hard-earned wisdom she first projected at 13, but has now more wholly experienced. She knows her music and presence represents what so much music did in the early aughts: nostalgia for a simpler time, capturing the bittersweet joys of being young and in love.
And despite the winding road that has been JoJo's music career thus far, she's showing no signs of slowing down. When PAPER caught up with the star songstress, we learned that she's re-released the nostalgic tunes on her own label imprint of Warner Brothers, Clover Music, and is also preparing more new, original music this year. Having been through what sounds like the worst and come out indestructible, JoJo is honest but understandably cautious, influential, and ready for what's next. But this time, she's calling the shots.
What was it like to have such an early taste of success at age 13?
I hadn't even been kissed. I remember when casting the music video for "Baby It's You," which was my second single, that's when I'd literally hit puberty, that's when I became a woman. I was literally a little girl, it's crazy. I thought I was so grown when I was 12 and 13, but looking back on it, there's just no way to really know how special and unique an experience it is, being so young and being exposed to so much.
"I was embarrassed by my age because there was nobody who was 13 who was on the scene at the time."
The mainstream music industry definitely has a preoccupation with youth that makes it hard for young girls to navigate.
Youth is exciting, of course. People see potential in youth and try to build on that. And trying new things is exciting, especially when you're young. But an interesting little tidbit from when I first came out is that we weren't leading with my age — at least, not in the beginning. I was embarrassed by my age because there was nobody who was 13 who was on the scene at the time. So I wanted to lie and say I was 16, I wanted to feel like I was more grown. I hated being the youngest. I wanted to be with the cool, older kids. But in hindsight, I think that's such a regular middle school thought like, I'm going to lie about my age on my AIM account, or anywhere else. I actually did that in person and online.
What are some early lessons you learned back then?
The biggest thing is that people will throw around the word "love," and I think I learned early on that there's a difference between people in the industry saying, "I love you like family" versus what your real family and actual close friends tell you. It was hurtful for me to learn that difference, though, but it was something I had to learn the hard way. Back then, it was just me and my mom, and I learned a lot personally and professionally pretty fast, but I think that was because I didn't really have other people around me who had been though a similar thing. I didn't really know who to look towards. I didn't come from a family of successful people, let alone singers. So I didn't really know what we were doing, we were kind of just making it up as we went along. The word love gets thrown around with little meaning — like, I remember the first time a boy said that to me, and I actually believed it.
Did you eventually find mentors or people who truly had your best interests at heart?
At that age, I really didn't want to listen to my mom, just to use her as an example. My mom was managing me and my career. We came from really humble beginnings and I think I didn't really have mentorship until a few years into my teens, where I had people step in that I respect and I looked up to. But even then, it was still a lot of me learning as I went along. My [current] manager is somebody who has helped guide me and give me advice in the industry for such a long time, she's been in my life since I was 13, and we started working closely together when I was 17.
"I was born a fighter."
Knowing what you know now, what might you tell young JoJo?
I would say to her, "You're going to go through some shit, and you're going to be OK." That's what I would say. "You're going to have to learn to be patient." I'm an only child and I think that having fame that young definitely does something to you where there is a level of just not understanding the word "no," because no one is telling you "no." I find that question to be really hard because I don't know that I would have listened to advice at 13 when I just put out my single and I thought I knew everything. I felt so confident at 13 — I don't know if you did — and it comes at different times for different people. I think I was probably the most not-giving-a-fuck probably at 12 when I was just singing. The thing I would say is, "Never lose that confidence, that fire." I was born a fighter, and at some point things will beat you down, and you feel like you don't have that in you anymore, at least that's what happened for me. So I would just encourage her to not lose that scrappiness.
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Having your dreams come true at a young age could make anyone feel like they had everything figured out.
Absolutely, I basically did at 13 have it figured out, because I had wanted to be a singer my entire life, so I was like, "Oh! It's about time." I signed my deal at 12. We're on the path, perfect, I'm here. I grew up watching these divas on TV and emulating them and trying to sound like them, and then I was following in that path and traveling the world. My first tour ever was opening up for Usher on his Confessions Tour, and everything that I had dreamed of was coming to fruition. You couldn't tell me nothing at that time.
You released two albums as a teenager, dropped some mixtapes, and then you had Mad Love in 2016 on Atlantic Records. Legal issues notwithstanding, how did you go about re-recording your first two albums?
Everything we made was from scratch, so that's how we avoided any legal issues. But, of course, we kept it sounding very true to the original because I just wanted to satisfy what wasn't there. You really can't find my first two albums on streaming platforms, so instead of making a live version or making new remixes, I just wanted to get it as close to the original as possible.
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Your first two albums came out on Blackground, which was Aaliyah's uncle's label, and the label she was signed to. Like your music, fans can't listen to her music on streaming platforms. I can't imagine how that might feel for you.
Music's kind of strange, because if you look on any streaming app it looks like I started my journey in 2016, which again, just isn't the case. I started making my first album in 2003, and then it came out in 2004. It really just was about reclaiming my history, reclaiming my time. As a fan of Aaliyah's, it makes me angry and sad to see the way that people can't enjoy her music unless they're going on YouTube and finding ripped versions. It's just not right, and I felt so angry and disillusioned [with the industry]. In re-recording, and finding a loophole to get this music out there, it felt empowering to find a solution that couldn't be taken away from me. More than anything, I wanted my fans to have what they want and deserve, which is access to the first two albums that they grew up with. It's weird because in the digital age, we want music on demand, to be able to listen to whatever we want at any time. It's really easy to do that with Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal. We want as few steps as possible, so going on YouTube and finding the shit, I just wanted to make it easier.
When you were teasing the re-releases on Instagram, you had fans in the comments from people like Dawn Richard (DAWN).
I love her so much. We've known each other for a long time. We did shows when she was first with Danity Kane. We were in a Keri Hilson music video together, actually, playing these badass bitches. We're always encouraging each other, believing in one another. I think she's such a powerful woman and force in the industry, and what she's doing independently is so inspiring. I think she's so fucking bomb.
Are you on a label? What has it been like taking control of your career?
I'm on Warner Brothers. I have a joint venture with them, so Clover Music is my label and I'm signed to Warner. As far as artistic freedom, it's definitely been a journey. I didn't feel like I was missing out on control or anything like that when I was making my first album because I was so young. But as you get older and I had more experience and more things that I want to say, you find a way to express yourself that will resonate, and it's a lot of trial and error. I've come to appreciate and enjoy the importance of collaboration. I now understand how to be creative with other people and how to not get too attached to certain things. I've made — when I was still on Blackground, before I sued them — several albums that never saw the light of day. In that process, I had to learn how not to be too attached. That's something I'm still learning: how to continue to stay creative and make things, hundreds of songs, and know that at the end of the day you might still need to make more to get the best.
I never thought about it like that at all, but I definitely relate to them in a certain way because we were all famous so young. I went through a lot of shit that thankfully wasn't being filmed. We know about their ups and downs because they were made public, and I can only be thankful that people didn't see my dark times because I was out here wildin' out, very upset, very sad. The industry is a tricky place to navigate. But I don't know those girls, is also what I'm saying. But I do remember one moment where I met Lindsay, who is a few years older than me. I remember her coming up to me and saying that she wanted to mentor me when I was a teenager, and that never did end up happening. My mom was sitting right there and she was like, "Jo, we're heading out."
You noted that the difference between you and Lindsay and Amanda is that their pain was very public tabloid fodder, and your pain was more private.
There's no difference in really what we went through, though. That's why I can only be thankful that it's not something people can go look at on the Internet. Because, don't get it twisted: I had many drunken nights, many times where I was just wanting to get out of myself. A lot of self-hatred, a lot of confusion, and even worse, I was just wanting to be somebody else. For years I was trying to make sense of my family life, and also feeling really out of control with what was going on in this career that I had started. From what I know of those girls, that was kind of a similar recipe for what got them to a certain point of looking like they were going through it. I don't want to be insensitive. But I do relate to them, in a sense.
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Learning all you've learned, do you feel like you're in a position now of mentorship?
Totally. I get so excited when I meet talented people, whether it's on the Internet or in person, on the road. Just the other day, someone came up to me at a coffee shop and sang for me. I was so excited about that spirit of being ready to sing at any given moment and knowing that could change anything — it reminded me of me back in the day. I got that guy's info, I loved his energy. You never know! I would love to be a part of other artists' ascensions. I often think of how Akon was a part of Lady Gaga's career in the beginning. I think it's meaningful to be able to give your experiences and advice. In starting my own label, I can do more of that. But I want to make sure that with my first signing that everything is done on the up and up, because I know how it is to sign a contract young and to feel like you can't leave or to feel like you're not being understood. We're in a different season that demands transparency and accountability, which I think is so great. There's more power in the hands of creatives and less in the hands of these major moneymaking corporations. The more human we become, the better it is for everyone.
"We should always be centering the voices of women who are brave enough to come forward."
What you're saying echoes so much of what's going on right now with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.
Absolutely, yes. I saw two episodes of Surviving R. Kelly. When they said he was hiding in plain sight, that's absolutely right. The first allegations came out when he married Aaliyah in the '90s, and it was just swept under the rug. Then in the early 2000s I think the first lawsuits were brought against him. But I think it's because we, as a society right now, are demanding accountability and I think that obviously this man needs to be in jail, period. So I think it's great that Lifetime helped bring this all to light in a new way, I know it was not an easy undertaking. I think it's great that everyone's having conversations about these issues. I'm hearing it everywhere and it's important, and I hope it creates larger change. We should always be centering the voices of women who are brave enough to come forward.
What's next for you?
I'm fully immersed in making a new album, so I'm just writing, recording, moodboard-ing, and just figuring out what I want this next chapter to look, feel, taste, smell like. It'll be this year. Now that I've reclaimed my time, I'm so excited for what's next.
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