By Jack Irvin
In the months leading up to the April 2020 release of JoJoâ€™s album Good to Know, the singer-songwriter was at her most liberated. Almost entirely co-written and co-produced by the artist herself, the ultra-introspective collection was her first original project to come out on Clover Music, her own label imprint launched in partnership with Warner Records. The release was a far cry from the near-decade she was kept from releasing music due to a contract dispute with Blackground Records that was resolved in court in 2014, as well as the creative differences she endured with her subsequent label, Atlantic Records, during the making of 2016â€™s Mad Love. On top of that, â€œSay So,â€ her collaboration with PJ Morton, won a Grammy in January 2020 for Best R&B Song, which further proved JoJoâ€™s perseverance over her 20-plus years in the entertainment industry was worth it. â€œ[It] gave me a sense of validation that I didn’t even realize I had really been longing for,â€ JoJo tells MTV News over Zoom.
But Good to Know was released as the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, and its promotional cycle was clouded by the political and social chaos of 2020. Like many other artists, JoJo was forced to cancel her tour. While the album received critical praise and reached high chart positions, it failed to spawn a hit comparable to 2004â€™s â€œLeave (Get Out)â€ or 2006â€™s â€œToo Little Too Late.â€ â€œI did have a No. 1 R&B album with Good to Know, and thatâ€™s something I am so fucking proud of,â€ she says. â€œBut to not hear my songs on the radio, I canâ€™t lie and act like that doesnâ€™t matter to me. I want my music to reach as many people as possible.â€
Instead of blaming the unfortunate circumstances, JoJo took the albumâ€™s lukewarm commercial reception as her own fault. By the end of 2020, she found herself anxiously wondering whether or not she was worthy of her place in the music industry. Around the same time, she experienced the end of a longtime â€œsituationshipâ€ with a friend-turned-lover. â€œI leaned on that person for so much,â€ she explains. â€œI was questioning everything. Iâ€™m like, â€˜Well, Iâ€™ll probably never fall in love again, so thatâ€™s it for me. Iâ€™m just gonna die alone.â€™â€ Not wanting to let the hardships keep her down, JoJo then shifted her perspective and turned her feelings into Trying Not to Think About It, a 12-track project that chronicles her complicated relationship with mental health.
JoJo recalls recognizing symptoms of depression and anxiety among some of her close family members growing up, but she didnâ€™t realize how directly it affected her until adulthood. â€œFor me, anxiety is putting too much pressure, too much weight, and too much importance on me,â€ she says, noting that itâ€™s a â€œperfectionist mentalityâ€ that often leads her to compare her own success to that of her peers. JoJo says sheâ€™s felt like â€œa bit of an outcastâ€ since she was little, but last year, that feeling escalated to questions about her purpose. â€œThat’s where a lot of Trying Not to Think About It came from, being in that negative, ruminating place of catastrophizing and thinking about, â€˜What the fuck am I doing?â€™â€
Such harsh thoughts have led her to harmful coping mechanisms, including binge drinking, overeating, and â€œfalling into toxic relationship patterns of feeling guilt and shame.â€ But thanks to advice from a therapist â€” or maybe an ex-boyfriend (â€œ[He] always used to therapize me, so I donâ€™t rememberâ€) â€” JoJoâ€™s learned healthier ways of dealing with mental-health struggles. One of them is personifying her depression and anxiety as a woman named Burlinda, which inspired the first track she created for the project, â€œAnxiety (Burlindaâ€™s Theme).â€ â€œIt can feel so all-consuming and dark when youâ€™re depressed,â€ she explains. â€œThe thought that thereâ€™s this nasty bitch who also lives inside me, whose name is Burlinda and who tries to take over every once in a while, I think is funny. It makes it a little lighter.â€
That mentality may make it easier to live with Burlinda, but it certainly doesnâ€™t make her presence any less irritating. â€œYou only show up when itâ€™s inconvenient / Always talkinâ€™ loud, fill my head with lies,â€ she sings on â€œAnxiety (Burlindaâ€™s Theme).â€ And if JoJo were to meet her in person, her message would be direct. â€œIâ€™d say, â€˜Hey bitchâ€™ â€” and I say this with love â€” â€˜I know youâ€™re trying to protect my ego. Youâ€™re trying to protect me from a worst-case scenarioâ€¦ But thatâ€™s not how Iâ€™m gonna live my life,â€™â€ she says. â€œâ€˜I’m not going to focus on the negatives, what has happened in the past or could happen in the future. We’re living in the present, Burlinda. I don’t think that you thrive here in the present, so I’m gonna need you to sit in the back seat until you learn how to act right.â€™â€
JoJoâ€™s process of healing from the low points of 2020 has included saying â€œyesâ€ to fruitful opportunities in 2021 â€” no matter how intimidating they may seem. The mission led her to go on Season 5 of The Masked Singer, where she finished in second place as Black Swan. â€œIt was humbling and challenging, and probably a good exercise for me to go through,â€ she explains. The experience reminded her of competing on shows like Destination Stardom and Americaâ€™s Most Talented Kid as a young child, when her hunger for performing was arguably its purest. â€œCovering and reimagining other people’s songs, thatâ€™s something that I’ve done since I was a little girl. It felt good, and it felt scary to put myself out there in that way.â€
JoJo understands her creeping feeling that sheâ€™s undeserving of her place in music may be hard for outsiders to grasp, considering sheâ€™s achieved such high successes and received praise from the likes of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. â€œPeople might look at me differently than I look at myself, but for me, I still have a lot more to go, and different tiers that I want to reach,â€ she explains. â€œI’ve been discouraged by a lot of different things in this industry, and I’ve literally stopped dreaming.â€ However, working through her insecurities in real life, as well as creatively through Trying Not to Think About It, has led her to a more optimistic, confident place today. â€œI am definitely worthy of the place that I have in this industry and beyond. I’m currently solidifying that spot,â€ she says. â€œI’m encouraged, I’m inspired, and I look forward to making the next album.â€
Rather than striving for top-charting success with Trying Not to Think About It, JoJo simply wants the project to provide the same comfort for fans that she felt while crafting it. â€œI hope this feels like a warm weighted blanket for them… I hope they know they’re not alone, and that they may be inspired to go on their own journey of finding themselves again, because itâ€™s not just gonna be one time,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™ve lost and found myself every single project, and I think itâ€™s always a worthy journey to go on.â€