JoJo is only 25, but she's already experienced an entire lifetime in the music industry. Her first big break came when she performed on Kids Say the Darndest Things, which led to an invitation to be on Oprah, which ultimately landed her a spot on America's Most Talented Kids when she was just a tween. That show caught the eye of an executive at Blackground Records, where she signed her first recording contract. She released her debut album at thirteen; it featured the hit single "Leave (Get Out)." The success of that track made her the youngest-ever solo artist to have a No. 1 on Billboard 's pop-songs chart in America. She landed starring movie roles, in RV with Robin Williams and Aquamarine. She released two more albums in quick succession, both selling millions, before going silent for a decade.
In the life of a pop star, ten years is basically forever.
She didn't stop making music during that time, but she was stuck in legal limbo with her label. Blackground launched in 1994 with Aaliyah as its first artist. The last album it released was a Timbaland record in 2009, after which it ceased to be active. JoJo's contract with Blackground, via imprint label Da Family Records, prevented her from releasing any music. A few years prior, when JoJo was shifting gears from child prodigy into her teen years, she says she started getting some troubling input from execs at her label about how she should look, what she should wear, and how much she should weigh. She also says there were threats to withhold her album until she lost weight, and insinuations that if she wanted to move on to more adult material she'd have to dress the part.
In 2013, she filed a lawsuit against the labels to extract herself from their control. Now that she's free, she's got a new label and a new album, called Mad Love, and she's ready to reintroduce herself to the world. Her first single, "Fuck Apologies," is only a taste of the independent, no-holds-barred kind of songs that make up this album. It's a declaration of intention and a statement of resolve for an industry that often treats women's bodies like commodities. We talked about what it's like to step back into the spotlight after so much time gone, being true to herself as an artist, and learning to say fuck off to the people who tell her what to do.
Courtney E. Smith: I understand you wrote or cowrote every song on the album, is that right? When did you start writing?
JoJo: Yes! I released three songs at the end of 2015, which was a great reintroduction [to audiences]. It took away some of the pressure that I had put on myself, because it was scary having not released official music with a label for so long. I went on tour with that music, and during that time I broke up with my boyfriend of a year and a half. He admitted that he was cheating on me, and I didn't want to get over it, so I broke up with him before the tour.
My father passed away about two weeks into that tour, which changed my life, of course. It got me thinking about what I was doing as an artist and if I was being true to myself, if I was coming from a place of fear. I'd been writing songs since I was a little girl, but I felt like I was accepting too many songs [to record] from other people as opposed to making sure that my DNA was woven into the fabric of the album.