Coco Jones is aiming to kick down doors and usher in a whole new generation of fearless Black women right alongside her.
Walking the balance beam of music and acting, Jones has emerged as as a fast-rising double threat. The vivacious soul singer is grabbing ears and stealing hearts with her R&B hits, while also appearing on Peacock’s Bel-Air as the self-assured Gen-Z version of ’90s character Hilary Banks.
After signing to Def Jam in 2022, Jones released her major label debut project, What I Didn’t Tell You. Soaked in buttery vocals and gripping tales about heartbreak, WIDTU was the perfect entrance for the former child star who had breakout roles in Disney Channel shows and films including So Random!, Good Luck Charlie and Let It Shine.
On her debut, only does she seamlessly flip SWV’s “Rain” into the addictive “Double Back,” but she flaunts her range on the Hot 100 hit “ICU.” Laden with emotion, “ICU” deals with the push and pull of a fallen relationship and proves why Jones has the potential to be one of the genre’s strongest vocalists.
“I was used to 12-hour work days, which didn’t faze me,” says Jones. “As a kid, I was on set during school. I was always working my little butt off. This is just what I do for my dreams.” Despite being a workhorse, Jones believes she’s still a work in progress in the music department, but is willing and eager to learn more to put the next generation on.
“Every time I sing ‘ICU,’ I find a new way to make it iconic because I don’t want the next girl to struggle how I struggled to get here,” she says. “We’re all talented. It should be easier. So that’s what I gotta do. I’m gonna kill it every time so that it will be easier one day.”
Billboard caught up with May’s R&B / Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month, Coco Jones, to speak about the success of “ICU,” the best advice SZA gave her and her mission to help Black women succeed.
Thinking about your Disney origins, does the pressure ever get to you knowing that only Zendaya has made the transition to music from a Black woman standpoint?
I think it’s very difficult and there were times where I was kind of in fear, but it was more of the uncertainty of when, if and how. Sometimes, it’s just like, “How the hell am I supposed to do this?” I think it’s hard enough to rebrand anything. If Coca Cola wanted to start selling cake, I would look at them so crazy because that’s not what you told us you do. So I think for me, I was like, “Somebody’s gotta help me.” That’s what I wanted the most; somebody else who knew how to figure this rebrand out. I’ll do my part. I’ll do the writing, I’ll do the creating, find myself and be vulnerable enough to tell ’em, but somebody gotta make somebody care. I feel like that was the part that really clicked for me and everything changed when I got the right team. Also, it took time to get to that. I had several promises and only one time did they pay out the way they were told to me, you know? That’s been my entire career, though.
Talk about the freedom you were able to have on this project as a Def Jam signee versus when you were first signed after the success of your 2012 film Let It Shine.
For me, you don’t know what you’re missing until you learn about it. For me, from Tennessee, just me and my mama doing this and trying to figure it out, having any label behind me, having any team was all so amazing. I had no creative control then. I just sang what they told me to sing. I would write songs and they wouldn’t like ’em and I was like, “OK. Cool.” I didn’t know. I think I was super delusional and I was so green.
Now, having the experience of looking back at the old songs, I’m now like, “Wait. That was fire.” Then, doing the math and seeing my other peers and creatives like SZA and H.E.R. and [thinking] “I would sing a song like that. Why didn’t I do that? Wait. You can dress like that on stage? That’s allowed?” I had epiphanies as I came to have a life and have experiences. I remember even the first time I said a curse word on a song. I wrote it for someone else and then I was even scared to have my voice on the demo saying that. I had to get out of the box, because I was so deeply in this cookie cutter box.
You’ve said in a past interview that your best guide is your intuition. Did your intuition tell you that “ICU” would be your biggest hit when you were recording it?
You know what? I think it didn’t [laughs]. I didn’t know it was going to be my biggest hit. There’s this thing I would do since when I was a kid where the actual soul would come out. I used to do it all the time when I would audition. I would sing “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin and I would pretend I was Aretha, like I been through the storm and this is my song. “You’re going to feel this,” but I’m nine. I don’t know anything. So I do give a lot of credit to my mom for even introducing me to that type of soul, emotion and that raw vulnerability that I learned to imitate, but I knew when I heard the track, I just knew [it was special]. I just knew I was going to do some sh-t.
You’ve also deemed this your most confident era. When did you find that sweet spot and start living life confidently?
Hmm. This was probably around the time that TikTok really popped me off again. Like the resurgence of relevancy was baffling. So I was like, “Wait a minute. These people still care? Ok. I gotta do something with this.” Like I thought I did enough. I really thought out of sight, out of mind and I don’t have no new show. I don’t have no new song. But when I told my story on the internet on YouTube, when I saw the wave of support, that didn’t go away. It kind of charged me up. Like, it would be a shame for me to not give these people that support me a reason to keep supporting me. I gotta put stuff out with my chest.
How do you balance being Hilary [on TV] and then Coco?
I think there’s no option but to do what must be done. I realized that I signed my name to both of these entities. I signed to two companies. One was NBC, Peacock and then Def Jam my second. So they both require me to get my job done, so I just do my job [laughs]. There’s no balance, though. There’s what can be done to work around the other and not like, “Ok. I have to be here. What can we do when I’m done with that? Then, I can go there.” It’s really about just figuring it out. There’s really no balance. It just depends on the schedule.
Have there been times when you caught yourself pulling from the Hilary Banks character when you’re in artist-mode?
Hilary’s a boss. I feel like she has a certain way that she sees her image, her career and trajectory, and nothing can sway her from that being what it is. I wanna tap into that more. I feel like I’m very self-assured of where I want it all to go, but I think I get stuff from Hilary because I’m still a rookie. There’s some things that I have to be educated on by people that have been here longer than me. So in one sense, I’m very decisive like Hilary, but I’m also very much more collaborative with my team.
When you get cosigns from artists like SZA and Janet Jackson, do those mean more to you than any of the love you’ve gotten from the acting side?
[Laughs] Well, because I was singing first and singing is my home, it does hit a little differently that people acknowledge who I wanna be as really good. That does hit differently. I do appreciate the love for Hilary, but at the end of the day, I’m just reading these words. But with me, this came from my heart. So to know that people are supportive of what came from my heart and literal spirit, yes, it hits very different.
SZA once told you that you needed to live life with a bit more delusion. How have you incorporated that into your everyday life?
I think just making my goals galaxy-big instead of medium-sized like they used to be. [They used to be] very logical, percentages and statistics, like, “What are the chances of…” I would really look these things up before I decided it was something I wanted, just to be safe. But that’s not the life I’m trying to live. I’m trying to live in delusion. If that’s where you want to get to, to shoot for the galaxy and at least hit the moon, then that’s how I’m gonna shoot. I think making all of my goals insanely large and not fact-based, not percentage-based, not based on my skin color or the genre [is the way to go].
You said your goal is to make a new standard for Black women. What steps are you taking to rewrite those standards?
I think showing up as the best version of me in every category. Like you said, the balance game of playing all of these roles is not easy. There are times where I feel like I could half-ass it and it would still be good, but no. I know that for where I want these next generation of Black girls to be able to walk into, I have to break those doors down and you don’t get there by just being good. You have to be jawdropping.