By Jack Irvin
In the months leading up to the April 2020 release of JoJo’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 2016’s Mad Love. On top of that, “Say So,” her collaboration with PJ Morton, won a Grammy in January 2020 for Best R&B Song, which further proved JoJo’s perseverance over her 20-plus years in the entertainment industry was worth it. “[It] gave me a sense of validation that I didn't even realize I had really been longing for,” 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 2004’s “Leave (Get Out)” or 2006’s “Too Little Too Late.” “I did have a No. 1 R&B album with Good to Know, and that’s something I am so fucking proud of,” she says. “But to not hear my songs on the radio, I can’t lie and act like that doesn’t matter to me. I want my music to reach as many people as possible.”
Instead of blaming the unfortunate circumstances, JoJo took the album’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 “situationship” with a friend-turned-lover. “I leaned on that person for so much,” she explains. “I was questioning everything. I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll probably never fall in love again, so that’s it for me. I’m just gonna die alone.’” 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 didn’t realize how directly it affected her until adulthood. “For me, anxiety is putting too much pressure, too much weight, and too much importance on me,” she says, noting that it’s a “perfectionist mentality” that often leads her to compare her own success to that of her peers. JoJo says she’s felt like “a bit of an outcast” since she was little, but last year, that feeling escalated to questions about her purpose. “That's where a lot of Trying Not to Think About It came from, being in that negative, ruminating place of catastrophizing and thinking about, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”
Such harsh thoughts have led her to harmful coping mechanisms, including binge drinking, overeating, and “falling into toxic relationship patterns of feeling guilt and shame.” But thanks to advice from a therapist — or maybe an ex-boyfriend (“[He] always used to therapize me, so I don’t remember”) — JoJo’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, “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme).” “It can feel so all-consuming and dark when you’re depressed,” she explains. “The thought that there’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.”
That mentality may make it easier to live with Burlinda, but it certainly doesn’t make her presence any less irritating. “You only show up when it’s inconvenient / Always talkin’ loud, fill my head with lies,” she sings on “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme).” And if JoJo were to meet her in person, her message would be direct. “I’d say, ‘Hey bitch’ — and I say this with love — ‘I know you’re trying to protect my ego. You’re trying to protect me from a worst-case scenario… But that’s not how I’m gonna live my life,’” she says. “‘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.’”
JoJo’s process of healing from the low points of 2020 has included saying “yes” to fruitful opportunities in 2021 — 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. “It was humbling and challenging, and probably a good exercise for me to go through,” she explains. The experience reminded her of competing on shows like Destination Stardom and America’s Most Talented Kid as a young child, when her hunger for performing was arguably its purest. “Covering and reimagining other people's songs, that’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.”
JoJo understands her creeping feeling that she’s undeserving of her place in music may be hard for outsiders to grasp, considering she’s achieved such high successes and received praise from the likes of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. “People 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,” she explains. “I've been discouraged by a lot of different things in this industry, and I've literally stopped dreaming.” 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. “I am definitely worthy of the place that I have in this industry and beyond. I'm currently solidifying that spot,” she says. “I'm encouraged, I'm inspired, and I look forward to making the next album.”
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. “I 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 it’s not just gonna be one time,” she says. “I’ve lost and found myself every single project, and I think it’s always a worthy journey to go on.”