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Sam Lansky Headshot

A Teen Pop Star Grows Up (and Gets Mad Along the Way)

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JoJo has always been a little angry.

Perhaps the most precocious outgrowth of the teen pop wave of the early 2000s, JoJo, born Joanna Levesque, made chart history by becoming the youngest solo artist to top the Billboard Pop chart at the age of 13 with her 2004 single, "Leave (Get Out)," a slick urban-pop confection lambasting a cheating lover. (Even if it was kinda hard to reconcile lyrics like "I'd think of how you promised me forever" with the cherubic tween in purple eyeshadow and big hoop earrings, I had to humor her because her heartbreak was so endearingly earnest.) Her 2006 single, "Too Little Too Late," was more restrained but no less bitter, a guitar-driven sigh of impotent resignation.

And then JoJo went off the grid, with only an occasional cover appearing on a mixtape or leaks popping up on YouTube. Behind the scenes, she was trapped in an increasingly fiery battle with her label, Blackground, with whom JoJo had signed a staggering seven-album deal at the age of 12. As Ryan Brockington astutely noted in the New York Post, the label has developed a reputation for holding its artists hostage; Toni Braxton and Timbaland have both taken Blackground to court over shady business dealings. In JoJo's case, Blackground both refused to release her from her contract and refused to release her music, a maddening situation for an artist whose ambitions are as clear as JoJo's. (While waiting for her label to release her third album at age 18, she considered just scrapping the whole thing and going to college -- an unusually measured plan for a teen pop star, no?)

Powerless to release her music commercially, in 2010 she instead posted the sensational mixtape Can't Take That Away From Me, an eclectic assemblage of tracks ranging from the shouty Neptunes hip-hop of "Pretty Please" to the straightforward pop of the title track. (I told a friend that I wanted to sell copies on the street for $10 each with a sign reading "Better than Katy Perry's Teenage Dream," a plan that I still haven't abandoned should things go south again.) Finally, she managed to extract herself from Blackground under conditions that remain mysterious (her first two albums have since been pulled from iTunes). JoJo's long-delayed third studio album, now titled Jumping Trains, is set for release this fall on Interscope. When she and I talked at a recent benefit for Girls Who Rock, she described her new label as "a true machine -- once the wheels get turning there's no place like them." Startlingly well-spoken -- she does write much of her own music and allegedly has a near-genius IQ -- she explained that the forthcoming album is "a more purpose-driven project" than the mixtape.

"I call it 'pop with an anger management problem,'" she said. "It's aggressive, it's edgy -- but it's still a pop album, so it has a feminine vulnerability, and the transparency that I wanted." When asked what she had learned following her struggles with her label, she said with a grim smile, "Have a great lawyer."

Even if it looks like the album will indeed be released, watching JoJo's legal battles over these past few years has left me with a sour taste in my mouth. The caliber of the tracks that have leaked persistently over the last half-decade, coupled with the mixtape's high quality, suggest that this album will be as good as any pop in the marketplace. The mixtape's lead single, "In the Dark," is sleazy, slinky minimalist R&B, while leaks like the achingly gorgeous piano-led "Forever In My Life" and superb Stargate-produced midtempo "Paper Airplanes" showcase her forceful vocals -- and if ever a voice was made for pop music, it is JoJo's. Sometimes sweet and bouncy and at other points anguished and desperate, she emotes like the very best.

Anger looks good on a pop tart -- Taylor Swift's recent work serves as a fine case study, as the New York Times' Jon Caramanica wrote last October --and JoJo wears hers well, disillusioned if not quite caustic. Her resentments toward the industry are apparent on last year's leak, "Hollywood," in which she sings: "Mother always told me, 'Jo, be careful, everything that glitters ain't gold," and later urges, "Don't sell your soul to have what someone had yesterday." But her first promotional single off Jumping Trains, "The Other Chick," is good-humored in its anger about romance, that more universal source of frustration. "I had the keys to your car -- she has the key to your heart," she laments. "Good luck in life, cause I'll be fine -- oh yeah, by the way, I faked it every time." It's as giddy and affable as spite can be.

And at the Girls Who Rock benefit, she seemed utterly at ease, unweighted by the baggage of the last few years. She performed her hits "Leave (Get Out)" and "Too Little Too Late," as well as ballad "Boy Without a Heart" and the memorable title track from Jumping Trains. Her vocals were flawless and her charisma was palpable. After the show, she tweeted simply, "This is what I live for. I love you." The feeling is mutual, at least on my end; if there is any justice in what can be a relentlessly unjust pop market, the public will welcome back this underrated talent like she never even left.