Just a little over a year after dropping his multiplatinum third LP, My Name Is Joe, the album's namesake is preparing to release a follow-up, Better Days, on December 4, his quickest album turnaround ever.
"I'm at a good label now," he said with a smile. "The freedom there is a lot better than it was before. I wasn't happy where I was, which was Mercury [Records]."
The strife caused by recording for Mercury was nothing compared to the anxiety he suffered in the wake of the September 11 attacks. On that unforgettable day, he was sitting in his new home in New Jersey and was able to see the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
"The night before I went and bought a camera because I wanted to document the recording of this album," he said. "I had no idea the camera would be used for other purposes. Man, I got everything. Just to be able to experience something like this, it's not the same."
The tragedy inspired his first single, "Let's Stay Home Tonight." "I was sitting in my empty room," he said, "just thinking after September 11 and reflecting on what happened. I didn't want to go anywhere. Just the whole concept of 'I just wanna stay home.' I didn't wanna keep working because I felt everything I did was so irrelevant. I didn't want to do anything. It really shook me up bad.
"I kind of took off for a while after this whole mayhem of what had happened," he added. "It's crazy because before it had happened I was going in the direction of 'Better Days,' which was the first song I wrote six months ago. Then I wrote a few songs in the Bahamas, just a real positive album. I had no idea we would be faced with so much heartache. I thought the title for this album would be perfect."
The aforementioned title track tells the stories of two teenage mothers and is meant to inspire listeners in the same situation. Joe was moved to write the song by his younger sister, who herself was a teen mom.
"She grew up without the baby's father and it was very difficult for her as a mother and learning to adjust to a whole new life," he explained. "I always wanted to do a record like this, and this is a perfect time for it. No one else is a doing a record like this."
The singer provokes guys to step into females' shoes on "What If a Woman."
"That song had to be written," he declared with a grin. "I know a lot of guys are gonna hate me but I don't care. It has to be said. I've said it before. 'What if a woman was just like us?' That concept is just bananas. What if a woman had a man on the side? What if a woman says she's working late and always had the same excuse? What if she knocked you up and said 'It ain't mine'? The women are gonna love me."
Better Days isn't all introspective. On "Here She Comes," Joe is on the verge of getting caught "crushin'," and is frantically thinking of how to get his lover out of the house. He's afraid his main squeeze is on "Some Left Eye sh--./ Might set my house on fire/ Take a brick to my whip."
"That's gangsta," he said. " 'Here She Comes' is a record I wanted to do for fun. I never did a record that I kind of took lightheartedly. It's a serious issue, getting caught, but I tried to do it in a fun way. You'll hear the window break, like someone is jumping out of a window."
One of the album's most meaningful songs is "Isn't This the World," where he sings about feeling alone in a world so cold ("We have to rise above/ Come together and love," he pleads.). He made the song six years ago with the Neptunes but felt with the world's current climate, it was the perfect time to unveil it.
"We did the record before they became known to everybody as the Neptunes," he said. "I've always loved the record, the record has been special to me, I wanted to do a record that represented my feelings for the world we live in. The Neptunes are dope but it sounds nothing like what they're known for doing. I wanted something that was a Neptunes track but didn't sound like a Neptunes song.
"Lyrically, it talks about 'Isn't this the world we live in and why do I feel like I'm in such a lonely place.' It's sort of a selfish world we live in. Everybody's out for themselves. That's the feeling I've gotten from my living experience. The record has been a song and timepiece that represents what's going on."