Twelve years ago, in February of 2004, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque made her debut at the tender age of 13 singing one of 2004’s most fiesty breakup anthems, “Leave (Get Out).” With a tone well beyond her years and the vocal skills to match, she quickly rose to stardom. While the song placed two spots shy of the Top 10 on the Hot 100, it did in fact peak at #1 on the Pop (Top 40) chart. The next single, “Baby It’s You” featured fellow teen star Lil’ Bow Wow and found similar success. Their parent album, JoJo’s self-titled debut, was certified platinum by the RIAA. Not bad for 14.
JoJo returned just two years later with her sophomore set, The High Road, led by her biggest hit to date, “Too Little, Too Late.” The single peaked at #3, as did the album, selling upwards of 500,000 copies total to date. However, the album’s campaign was quickly abandoned by JoJo’s incompetent label, Blackground, and just as quickly as she came, JoJo quietly disappeared from the music scene.
When JoJo debuted, I was in my final year of junior high school – as she would have been too; we were both born in 1990. Needless to say, this 13-going-on-14 year old white girl who stormed onto the music scene singing R&B was basically the coolest chick in the world to me (you know, aside from Mariah, Destiny’s Child and Janet) – ok, coolest in my age bracket. She could sing and clearly studied the work of my aforementioned faves. Not only that, but her lyrical content sounded just as mature as her pint-sized-powerhouse voice. While I had never been in a relationship, I went hard to “Leave (Get Out)” anyway. Of course, I had to get her album. While much of it was your standard teenage fair, I enjoyed bops like “City Lights,” “Homeboy,” “Breezy,” and the cover of SWV’s “Weak.” JoJo even had writing credits on a few of the songs, which impressed me. You see, at the time, I swore I was going to be a songwriter. I even wrote break-up anthems with no experience like “Leave (Get Out)”! However, there was one song on the album in particular that forever gave JoJo a special place in my heart: “Keep On Keepin’ On.”
Penned solely by JoJo herself, “Keep On Keepin’ On” is an inspirational guitar driven ballad that speaks to those who have a struggle filled life. She sings, “I remember when I was in your position, tried to tell people my story but no one would really listen, I know times are hard right now, happiness is hard to find right now, but you’ve gotta keep on keeping on,” as though she was a grown woman who had been through it all. However, for anyone who’s ever had to grow up too soon due to life’s circumstances like JoJo apparently had, the words ring true. That’s why it rang true for me. There was something special hearing JoJo sing this song at the very same age as me, at the very same time, comforting me through the challenges I was facing as a teenager. “Work with what you’ve got, and someday you will fly,” sang JoJo. Today, I’d like to think we’re both flying.
At barely 16, JoJo released The High Road. While the album was better musically, it had less input from JoJo and thus didn’t really have any songs showcasing the artistic depth “Keep on Keepin’ On” hinted at. Still, at an age where most teens were still finding their voices, like I was, JoJo was too. Even though just two years had gone by since the release of her debut, The High Road showed growth both vocally and content-wise too. She was poised to blossom into one of music’s brightest stars, despite falling into the standard sophomore slump commercially… and then she disappeared.
During this time, JoJo did a lot of growing, and so did I. We turned 18. I went to college; she went through label drama, did some features, acting roles, and dealt with the struggles of teenage fame. Then, in 2010, as we both readied to leave our teenage years behind, JoJo released her first mixtape. In spite of her label’s stifling of her music, JoJo gave us the aptly titled Can’t Take That Away From Me.
For me, 2010 was a big year. I had started dating, dormed at college and then transferred colleges, went on my first vacation with friends (to see Janet Jackson for the first time at the Essence Festival in New Orleans), where I officially started drinking and went to my first gay bar. By the time Can’t Take That Away From Me was released in September of 2010, I was dorming in Manhattan with plans to study abroad in Europe in January. The themes on JoJo’s Can’t Take That Away From Me echoed what I was going through… and, again, it felt all the more appropriate, poignant and significant because she was the same age as me. The idea of not being held back by anything on songs like “Can’t Take That Away From Me,” or standout mixtape-closer “All I Want Is Everything” matched my own newfound ambitious and fearless attitude toward life. Her laments of love matched some of my own feelings as I blindly navigated the world of dating. From her frustrations with boys being flaky (“Why Didn’t You Call”), to her tears over their heartlessness (“Boy Without a Heart”), or the emptiness that comes with casual sex (“In the Dark”), I felt like JoJo was my soul sister, my friend-in-my-head who shared my struggles. Young, searching for love and fulfillment… we were kindred spirits, JoJo and I.
Teased with a couple of false starts in 2011’s “Disaster” and summer 2012’s “Demonstrate,” JoJo eventually delivered, just in time for her 22nd birthday in December 2012, once again in the form of a mixtape: Agápē. By this time, we had passed the milestone of 21; I had fallen in love, and got my heart broken. JoJo seemed to read my heart once again with the opening track to the tape, “Back2thebeginningagain,” singing:
It took me 22 years to trust myself,
Too many people told me to be somebody else
They said, “There’s two things you gotta do to succeed,
- Forget about you, 2. Listen to me…”
I was 22, heartbroken, graduated from college and newly employed – I heard a lot of things from a lot of people of what I should do next and how I should do it. JoJo was hearing those same things, albeit in a different fashion. Once again, we were on the same page. There were other moments within the mixtape that struck a cord with me, such as “White Girl In Paris,” (I studied in Paris the year prior), the fuck-it attitude of “We Get By,” the “always going back” to that one guy she laments about on “Billions,” and the brash, honest frustrations of “Can’t Handle the Truth.”
However, more time went by while JoJo perfected her next step: her long awaited third studio album, her formal return to the commercial music business. During this time, I was gaining my own experiences at my first job, advancing my career as well. When JoJo finally returned, in the summer of 2015 with the #Tringle, one thing was clear: she was ready for that next big step, and so was I. Released one year in advance of what would come to be Mad Love, the #Tringle of “When Love Hurts,” “Say Love” and “Save My Soul” were everything I needed from JoJo. It showed immense growth vocally, sonically and in content, too. “When Love Hurts” is a club-ready vocal showcase, “Say Love” is an emotional, relatable love ballad that resonated with me so much and “Save My Soul” is a heartbreaking song about addiction that I can relate to for my own reasons. JoJo’s growth was once again in line with my own. Such growth came at a milestone for us, age-wise: 25. We were both ready for our next step into the next quarter of our lives. Both of us ready to move onto the next phase of our careers.
This fall, we both realized our teenage dreams: I moved to New York City to start my new job here, and JoJo released her long awaited third album, her first official album as an adult – 10 years after her sophomore set The High Road was released. It is indeed such a pivotal moment and year for us both. While I’ve only had less than 24 hours with the album, I already have mad love for Mad Love, and can tell it will likely sit contentedly amongst her other adult work, holding special significance in my life. The opening track alone, “Music.,” juxtaposes the significance of music in her life with the struggles she has gone through in her life.
It hit me hard to listen to this song, since, as evidenced in this post and many others on this site, music is such a vital part of my life. It has gotten me through so many moments, and the fact that JoJo wrote such a beautiful song that articulates a similar feeling is beyond chilling. “Who would I be without you?” she asks… JoJo, I might have the same question for you – who would I be without you? Thank you for 12 years of music, and many more to come.
UPDATE, 5/1/17: Tomorrow, I will meet you, JoJo. It’s been nearly 8 months since Mad Love. was released and I wrote this, and just as I predicted, Mad Love. has come to mean so much to me just like the rest of your work. From the IDGAF sentiments of “I Can Only.” and “Fuck Apologies.” or the dismissal of fake bitches on “FAB” and a clueless man on “High Heels,” I feel you more than ever. Or, there’s the bluntness of “Edibles,” and my favorite track on the album, “Honest.” That song is basically me. Then, there’s “Reckless,” which I can’t relate to from your point of view, but rather from the point of view of being on the other side of that experience… wishing that my lover said to me what you said to yours. Then of course, there are reassertions of self-love and closure in “I Am.” and “Clovers.” Nearly every song means something to me, and I want you to know just how thankful I am for that.
There’s so much I’d love to say to you… this, and so much more. Because I know I’ll only remember or be able to say a few things tomorrow, I’ll be printing this out for you. Old school like.