After a decade of record label turmoil, the pop singer JoJo—of “Leave (Get Out)” fame—returns with a sincere third album, featuring guest spots from Alessia Cara, Wiz Khalifa, and Remy Ma.
At 25, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque is already something of a veteran. In 2004, she became the youngest artist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop songs chart with “Leave (Get Out),” released when she was just 13. Its girl power ethos and catchy hook delivered by a precocious teen star aligned into a perfect pop moment. “Leave (Get Out)” was an emblem of the TRL era—and, ostensibly, the launchpad from which JoJo’s career would blast into the stratosphere.
Some of this momentum carried over to her sophomore effort, The High Road, in 2006, featuring the excellent young love anthem “Too Little Too Late.” Then, in a turn of events that even the most experienced musician would dread, a legal dispute with her label halted any of her commercial ambitions. The battle essentially held her career hostage for the better part of 10 years. Now that the smoke has cleared, JoJo’s back with a new label in her corner, a decade of gritty industry experience behind her, and her third full-length album.
Mad Love. provides some indication of the path JoJo might have taken if her career had rolled along uninterrupted. The EDM-leaning beats favored by today’s biggest pop stars, her contemporaries in terms of age if not necessarily longevity, are prevalent. The low, pulsating synths of bonus track “Good Thing.” build up to a drop on the chorus, and lead singles “Fuck Apologies.” and “F.A.B.” are obvious ploys for radio rotation. The former comes complete with a tame Wiz Khalifa verse, while the latter boasts an always welcome contribution from Remy Ma.
From a different artist, these songs might sound like pre-packaged attempts to jump on the same bandwagon that she decries in “F.A.B.” In JoJo’s case, they play out as sincere progressions, bolstered by her vocal talent and honest approach to storytelling (she has songwriting credits on every track). There’s enough compelling singing across Mad Love. to hold interest, even if your tolerance for dance-pop wears thin.
Rhythmically, JoJo is arguably following on a trend that she helped put in motion: she was working with Nordic hitmakers well before Stargate’s run of chart smashes. Lyrically, she is also exploring more mature themes. There are songs about sex and love to be sure (“Reckless.,” “Like This.”), but also joy and angst. On bonus “Clovers.,” she chronicles her struggles with depression: “No matter what the doctors offered me/Couldn’t shake that dark cloud off of me.” The song gives her fans, especially the ones who shed adolescence alongside her, the language to describe the fraught transition into adulthood. Perhaps the unintended advantage of being sidelined by her label was the chance it gave JoJo to bypass the common, shock-based pop starlet rebrand in favor of simply living to tell her tales on her own terms.
JoJo’s original deal was with the now defunct Blackground Records, helmed by uncle of the late Aaliyah, Barry Hankerson. The association undoubtedly, if unconsciously, pushed her sound towards R&B. It also resulted in some of her debut album’s best non-single cuts. Twelve years later, Mad Love. only reinforces the idea that JoJo could thrive in the R&B sphere; “Edibles.” is proof. As she sings, “I bring all the realness to the surface/Does a woman like that make you nervous?” over distorted synths to her are-we-aren’t-we companion, you can’t help but wish that every other track sounded something like it. The electro-pop of Mad Love. could stand to make way to a few more slow jams, which highlight her impressive range and its raspy magic—outdone only slightly by Alessia Cara on “I Can Only.,” another standout.
While JoJo sounds great on big ballads and floor-filling tracks alike, Mad Love. lacks a cohesive sound. The abrupt genre shifts are jarring at turns, but paradoxically it’s this malleability that should be key to JoJo’s continued success. Ultimately, though, Mad Love. sounds like an album that JoJo needed to make, and one that her fans were waiting for—the fans that grew up with her, went through big life changes beside her, devoured EPs and mixtapes she made despite record label obstruction, and took her back to No. 1, according to a more modern metric (the iTunes chart). On “Music.,” when she sings “every night I bet my life on you,” it’s encouraging to see that after all this time, the risk paid off.