It’s tempting to see the ongoing critical love for Jojo’s comeback as purely a product of narrative: What self-respecting music blogger wouldn’t be rooting for a tween one-hit wonder who scrapped her label-approved sound and ventured out on her own to make the kind of music she always dreamed of doing, especially if that music turned out to be the spacey adult R&B that the Internet loves?
So yes, we’re all on her side from the get-go. But that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the music Joanna Levesque has been putting out for the past year or so, which is some of the most pleasurable pop to never make its way to the radio. Case in point, Jojo’s new mixtape Agápē, a 30-minute “labor of love” that finds the singer breaking new ground in her career’s second act. (The tape doesn’t officially come out until Thursday, Jojo’s 22nd birthday, but the whole thing is streaming over at Complex, so it’s almost as if it’s out already!)
Lead single “We Get By” sets the tone of the tape: Jojo is focused on the hustle, with a clear eyed vision of the hurdles that lie ahead in her path out of industry purgatory. The label might demand of her, “You should pull your titties out, then we’ll put your record out,” as on opener “Back 2 the Beginning Again,” but again and again, Jojo reiterates her own belief in herself, like a mantra: “When I woke up, I knew who I needed to be.” On the spoken-word segment that closes out “We Get By,” she’s explaining, “I just feel like, whatever comes my way, I can deal with it,” and she’s so insistent it’s hard not to believe her.
But “I believe in myself” ballads are as common as mud these days, when every American Idol contestant has an inspiring story of their own triumph over adversity. What sets Jojo apart is her eye for the gritty detail of the grind, the ins and outs of the weird no-man’s-land where you have just enough money to have fun, but never enough to stop working. “We Get By” finds her stuck for hours on public transit like any other commuter, and when she blows off steam, her name-drops are hilariously on-point: “All I’ve got are these hopes and dreams and this cranberry Stoli.” (Unlike Taylor Swift, she knows exactly the right brand names to choose.)
Even when she’s not on the clock, Jojo’s got a knack for the world-weary sketch. “I have way too many tattoos to go back to status quo,” she sings on “Billions,” admitting later, “I hot-boxed my apartment just to come up with this song.”
Elsewhere, the hardness slips, at least a little. “White Girl in Paris” is not the Watch the Throne homage its title promises (though that would have been amazing), but instead a gorgeous cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” And in the interstitial moments between songs, Jojo inserts a collection of interludes, candid recordings of herself jamming drunk with friends, or attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade with her family. It’s the musical equivalent of an Instagram feed, letting us in on Jojo’s day-to-day as if we were just another one of her gang.
We still don’t have a release date for Jojo’s much-delayed third album, The Untitled Project Formely Known As Jumping Trains, but rumors place it in early next year. If you want to get on the Jojo comeback on the ground floor, you owe it to yourself to check out Agápē. Stream it at Complex, or just wait for the official release!
Also, if you were worrying what “Agápē” meant, it’s Greek for “unconditional love.”
4 (out of 5)