JoJo's Comeback: Why Her R&B Makeover Is Worth Watching
Singer reboots her career, earns hipster cred with the help of Drake's producer
"To be honest, I feel like, for a long time, I was afraid of being me," says Joanna "JoJo" Levesque, the 21-year-old pop singer-songwriter who's spent a quarter of her life trying to release her third album. During the process of trying to follow up her 2006 effort "The High Road," problems with her label persisted, and became public. A new full-length, "Jumping Trains," was completed, and scrapped. And then, two weeks ago, she released one of the year's most unexpectedly riveting singles.
"Demonstrate" combines an airy, minimalist approach to R&B with a yearning sexuality that re-contextualizes the Massachusetts-bred singer for pop fans who only know her through "Leave (Get Out)," a catchy breakup single she released at the age of 14. "Baby, there's a lot of freaky shit running in my mind/That I can't say/But I know I can demonstrate," JoJo sings, her voice slithering over the imploding beat.
"Demonstrate" was produced by Noah "40" Shebib, the white-hot studio whiz out of Toronto best known for concocting Drake's introspective sound, as well as being overly particular about his collaborators. The singer tells Billboard.com that "Demonstrate" will serve as the lead single to her new album, and that the rest of the full-length will follow in its striking sonic path.
Although "Demonstrate" hasn't hit iTunes yet and isn't burning up any Billboard charts, the track has gotten positive feedback from online tastemakers. Popdust described the song as a "sexy, moody, weirdo masterpiece," while Idolator writes, "This sounds exactly like a song someone like Kelly Rowland might release, and surprisingly, JoJo totally pulls it off." Meanwhile, in the days following the release of "Demonstrate," JoJo garnered 9,000 new Twitter followers and a 15% increase in traffic to her VEVO channel.
It's a distinct possibility that JoJo's ongoing rebirth as an R&B outsider never gains traction, but her best-case scenario is following the career trajectory of someone like Swedish pop star Robyn, whose slow transformation into an electro-pop darling culminated with her acclaimed "Body Talk" series in 2010. Both artists released sugary radio hits as teenagers ("Leave (Get Out)" and "Show Me Love," respectively), and then essentially disappeared for years while renovating their sounds and accruing hipster cred. Can JoJo use her time out of the spotlight as a springboard to a hip reintroduction? And will her fans accept JoJo 2.0?
"I felt like people wouldn't really respond to it," JoJo tells Billboard.com of her new, R&B-inflected persona. "And I love pop music -- I don't want that to be mistaken. But I wanted to do something with a little bit of a twist. And I just feel like right now, the climate is perfect for me to be myself, you know what I mean? Artists like Frank Ocean and Drake have really kind of inspired me to be more comfortable, to be who I am."
JoJo's third album has been in a limbo to end all limbos after originally being announced in 2007. Since then, the project's title shifted from "All I Want Is Everything" to "Jumping Trains"; dozens of tracks leaked in various states of completion; and JoJo took to Twitter to let fans know that Blackground Records, her longtime label affiliated with Interscope, was holding the project hostage. "Curious 2know the status of my album? tweet BlackgroundMG. They control the $ & album date," JoJo wrote in May.
"I've definitely learned patience with this process," JoJo says carefully. "I'm excited for material to come out, but I don't have anxiety over it any longer, you know what I'm saying? I know that, I trust that, I hope that when it's time for it to come out, it will be the right time."
"Disaster," another breakup song with a Kelly Clarkson vibe, was released in August 2011 and given a proper music video last November. Months before that, however, JoJo tossed out a remix of Drake's single "Marvin's Room" in June, swapping out the rapper's vocals for her own and turning his somber ode to drunk-dialing into an equally spare, profanity-laced kiss-off. The remix ignited the blogosphere and has since garnered over 30 million clicks on YouTube, compared to 7.8 million views of her official "Disaster" video. "With the response that I got from 'Marvin's Room,' it kind of gave me the okay to venture more into the territory that I wanted to go already," she says.
Nearly a year later, JoJo was in Toronto, working with the man who conjured the "Marvin's Room" beat. "I told my team I would love to work with 40 -- just throwing it out there… not really thinking what would happen," JoJo admits. But the producer responded to the singer-songwriter's style, and the pair recorded "a couple of songs" together in April, according to the singer. "The way that he produces is different [from other producers]. It pushed me," says JoJo.
The singer was so taken with the sound of "Demonstrate" and her other work with Shebib that she decided to officially throw out the "Jumping Trains" material she had previously recorded. Therefore, "Disaster," which has sold 160,000 downloads according to Nielsen SoundScan, will not appear on JoJo's third album. Her label and management team were more understanding about scrapping the older material than she had expected. "After that session [with Shebib], I think the consensus was, 'This is what we've been looking for anyway,'" she says. "'Disaster' and 'Demonstrate' are from very different places and fit on different albums. So, in moving in a new direction, I just thought it would be the right call to start fresh."
JoJo says that she and "40" plan to reconvene in the studio soon, and that she's worked with producers like Da Internz and Kadis & Sean on new material since the spring session. A music video for "Demonstrate" will be filmed in two weeks before it makes it to iTunes on Aug. 28, but JoJo remains committed to staying in the studio and creating what she refers to as an "atmosphere" for her long-awaited new album. There's still no release date, and JoJo certainly isn't anxious to rush something out.
"I'm only 21, and I really believe that everything does happen as it is supposed to, whether we realize it or not," she says. "I think I've gotten stronger. I think I've grown as a singer. I've learned a lot as a songwriter. And there are things I had to go through personally and business-wise to get me to this point where I am right now, creatively. And I just feel more ready than ever."