When I was three years old, I refused to watch anything other than MTV and Animal Planet for months. Instead of playing tag and watching The Backyardigans, I worshiped at the altar of TRL and its weekly rotation of up–and–coming pop divas. First, it was Christina Milian. Then it was Avril Lavigne. However, my most enduring obsession was with JoJo, the 13–year–old wunderkind with a voice reminiscent of a young Mariah Carey—all vocal runs and vibrato. I remember choreographing dance routines to her ever–catchy single “Baby It’s You” and inventing an imaginary boyfriend so I could relate to “Leave (Get Out).” In many ways, JoJo’s commanding vocals and playful demeanor cemented my love for mainstream pop. So when she re–recorded her self–titled debut album after a dispute with her former record label that deprived Spotify of some quintessential throwbacks, I knew I had to take a listen.
However, the album that Street once said “balanced a pop sheen ... with a street edge” now doesn’t captivate in the way it did almost 15 years ago, when OutKast dominated the airwaves and low–rise jeans were cool. JoJo’s hook—that she sounded adult while barely being a teen—equipped the album with a contrast between teeny–bopper lyrics and dynamic vocals. Lacking that hook, the re–recorded version uncovers a new dichotomy. Thanks to a deliberate effort to emphasize JoJo’s impressive vocals rather than the dated beats, JoJo (2018) is raw and vulnerable yet light and airy, perfectly capturing the young adult experience.
The album's opening track, “Breezy,” immediately transports you back in time with a beat that sounds right out of an old–school Reebok commercial. Only instead of coming across as a braggadocious pre–teen on the original issue of the self–titled album, JoJo reclaims the song with the mature vibrato of a woman claiming her HBIC status. She spits one liners with fire–starter intensity and maintains a smooth, Nelly–esque flow throughout. JoJo’s energy is immediately contagious and you can’t help but hope that it permeates the whole album.
And it does. JoJo delivers a layered listening experience. On one level, the album is a relic of early 2000s R&B teeming with long–forgotten slang. On another, it’s a searing message about the transience of childhood. Songs like “Not That Kinda Girl” solidify sonic memories. It sounds like singing into your hair brush in front of a Jesse McCartney poster while wearing a Lisa Frank tee. It’s smooth, with JoJo rolling between vocal runs and casually spitting verses. Yet, it resonates differently. JoJo sings about demanding respect in the face of looming rejection, a task endemic to Penn—an environment where recruiters, professors, and clubs often make judgements that leave us feeling less–than.
Other standouts include “Homeboy” and “Keep On Keepin’ On” where JoJo’s silky vocals glide. Her voice is rich with intention—every word, key change, and run sounds deliberately natural. In an era chock–full of overproduced bass drops and flourishes, this is refreshing. JoJo sounds strongest on slow jams like “Weak,” where a minimalist arrangement allows her voice to drip with every ounce of emotion.
That being said, not every song holds up on the re–release. “Baby It’s You” lacks the burst of flirty energy that originally made it shine. Her richer tone makes lines like “Ice is cool, but I’m looking for more” sound dated and juvenile, as though she’s pantomiming her younger self. Meanwhile, powerhouse break–up anthem “Leave (Get Out)” has the opposite problem. She sounds mousy and vulnerable in parts of the song that previously asserted strength. Moments like these provoke a secret wish—that we could preserve our youth forever and that some things, like the sound of our favorite songs or the color of our favorite sweaters, don’t pale over time.
A tribute to childhood and a return to the golden era of R&B, JoJo’s self–titled debut holds up better than most things created in 2004. While it may not have the endurance of Facebook, JoJo’s voice gives the otherwise vintage album a longer shelf–life than an ancient Tamagotchi.