Jezebel Quickies is a new video series in which we get to know our favorite musicians, artists, actors and other creatives in a snap amount of time.
My favorite set of SXSW in 2014 was both a surprise and also something I felt like I’d spent the last 10 years expecting: it was JoJo—yeah, that JoJo, I said to everyone who seemed perplexed at the depths of my enthusiasm—JoJo at Fader Fort, in a black baseball jersey and a latex bustier, a plaid skirt slit up to the waistline, newly released from a biblically prolonged legal battle with Blackground Records and slamming through a set like she’d never left.
That spring, she’d just released a Valentine’s Day mixtape, featuring this truly great Phil Collins cover; since then she’s been slowly ramping up to her album, forthcoming in 2016 on Atlantic. A week ago, she released a “tringle,” which is a snack-food-suggestive JoJo name for what literally anyone else would (reasonably) call an EP. It’s terrific—dark pop R&B, an old-school vocal showcase with tight, crisp production; a house track, a vengeful ballad, a torch song. JoJo hasn’t charted in a decade, but this III business reminds you that she’s only now, at 24, approaching the age you may have guessed she was if you heard her singing “Leave (Get Out)” when she was 13.
The tringle’s tracks are telling in their titles: “When Love Hurts,” “Save My Soul,” and “Say Love.” They’re embattled, sonically pent-up, full of pride and pleading, which is JoJo’s instinctive sweet spot; she’s always done friction well. As a preteen—at a time when most of her peers were sweatily botching even the most rudimentary quasi-romantic encounter—JoJo had already mastered the kiss-off, as demonstrated in “Leave” and “Too Little Too Late” (the platonically perfect latter of which was co-written by Billy Steinberg, who co-wrote “Like A Virgin” and “I Drove All Night” and Demi Lovato’s magical “Give Your Heart a Break”).
“It’s funny,” she said, when I asked her about the fact that all the love interests in her songs seem like real assholes. “It’s almost like art predicted life for a minute there. ‘Leave’ and ‘Too Little Too Late’ were handed to me, and then when I started dating a few years later, I wondered if those songwriters hadn’t instinctively picked up on something.”
Her attraction to romantic difficulty changed, she added. But throughout personal shifts, she was still stuck in bureaucratic purgatory: the deal she’d signed at age 12 had her in for seven albums with a label that lost their distribution, and kept her tied up for seven years. JoJo put out a couple of bootleg mixtapes anyway, and one of the highlights was her cover of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room,” in which she goes immensely harder than Drake in her rewrite. His version:
Fuck that nigga that you love so bad/ I know you still think about the times we had
I said fuck that new girl that’s been in your bed/ and when you’re in her I know I’m in your head
The delivery is even more flossily fuck-you. I ran into your homeboys, she sings, they’re all fucking idiots.
Anyway, now it’s tringle time. “It sounds like a chip,” I said to her.
“Once you pop you don’t stop,” she replied, in the lobby of our office building, while my coworkers streamed obliviously by. She told a woman with big dark curls that she liked her hair; the woman looked at her in irritation and walked on, and JoJo laughed easily. She has a sharp, deep charisma but rests generous and easy in her vibes. When I walked her through the under-construction Gawker office, fearing that a large piece of drywall would fall on JoJo and I’d have to seppuku myself, she stepped gamely through a maze of dusty building materials; several people thought I was showing a very cute new staff writer to the kitchen and lightly waved.
In the above video, taped without anyone involved in the filming being harmed, we talked about stage fright, Just Kids, what’s good to sing in the car, and whether or not she’d go to space if the option was available. I asked her who she’d save if “Leave” and “Too Little, Too Late” were in a sinking canoe and she only had one life jacket. “‘Leave,’” she said, “it was the one that started everything.” We talked about what she wanted to cover next, and got to 3LW. “The lisp, though,” I said—you know, promitheth promitheth—and then JoJo did the lisp.
When she left the office, I put on “Say Love” for awhile. It’s my favorite song from the tringle (still stuck on this stupid word: TRINGLE!)—an arena-size torch song on a sex jam beat. Its chorus melody is so simple and elegant as to be almost ‘90s country—in another world, it could’ve been Shania—but here it’s big bombastic pop, with JoJo pushing her belt up an octave, casting a slow riff back and forth like a spell and then releasing it, rippling it down.
It’s a lot of what I’ve always loved about JoJo: she’s as technically prodigious now as ever with her voice, but she’s playful even when she’s dropping bombs. She’s here because she wants to be, and now she finally can. In just three minutes above, you can see it.
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