Former child star JoJo’s career trajectory has been all over the map, and her 4th studio album comes after a decade of contract disputes, a return to the public eye in 2016 with the respectable Mad Love, and finally leaving Atlantic Records and starting up her own label. Once again, JoJo has shifted her sound and approach with good to know, largely stepping away from the more traditional R&B and soul that she demonstrated on her previous album and getting a little more trendy with some hip-hop influence and production work and features from some of the biggest names contributing to the juggernaut alt-R&B sound coming out of Toronto. While it’s a little disappointing to hear JoJo’s big step into “the artist she was always meant to be” sound largely like everyone else, with a strange amount of what sounds like filler to me on an album that stands at only 9 songs in length, she still manages to accentuate the sound with some impressive vocal flourishes and the kind of hitmaking melodies that sneak up on you halfway through these tracks.
The album opens with about a minute of the slowly creeping musical palates you can usually expect from today’s alt-R&B stars on the track “So Bad,” JoJo’s smoky and raspy vocals slinking around the sparse musical landscape as a kind of extended intro where she can show off some high notes before an enormous drop of rubbery bass notes and trap hi-hats signals the rhythmic chorus. Like most of the songs here, there are a lot of great elements to the track but it’s hard not to feel like it’s a little uninspired and underwritten, the track feeling a little disjointed as if a couple shorter vignettes aiming to hit a brief, undeniably catchy and trend-hopping sequence of music were thrown together into one narrative that ends up concluding rather abruptly. The track “Small Things” is another weird one, one of the more stripped-back and emotional tracks here that sees JoJo addressing the problems with suppressing her emotions, but the basic loop in the background stays the same and refuses to build up as JoJo’s voice progressively gets more and more impassioned and in need of instrumental support – it feels like another strange oversight on a track that should have been an easy standout.
JoJo’s singing voice is always a pleasure to listen to, but the album is largely held back by the songwriting and structuring that makes JoJo’s music seem a little faceless and mostly unmemorable. One of the biggest problems with this actually might be the fact that JoJo, despite being present as a fully-grown artist for a couple years now, suddenly seems to be coming down with a case of Disney-itis that wasn’t anywhere to be found on her last album. She makes nearly all of these songs awkwardly and overtly sexual, jettisoning the nuance of metaphor off a cliff and really bringing me out of the chill and calming musical world she’s trying to convey here, especially when she brings Tory Lanez onto the track “Comeback.” It’s never a good look when someone is obviously trying this hard to be taken seriously.
Still, there are quite a few musical moments here that seem unassuming and overdone at first, but by the time JoJo hits the 2nd or 3rd chorus she has me completely convinced – likely the power of what a singer with a voice this dynamic can do. The track “Pedialyte” seems like a pretty standard-issue drinking and party track at first with a section of woozy gang vocals on the chorus, but there’s something about the impressive range JoJo covers in the chorus that make the breathy voice she reaches down to the bottom notes with and the vocal runs that she backs it up with that gets the rhythms of the rattling trap beat into your bones by the end of the track. The way it builds up to the explosion of the chorus when the subject matter is JoJo continuing to return to her partying ways every night after attempting to swear off of it is another nice twist that makes you more and more willing to indulge in the slow and swaying rhythms each time it drops as well. “Lonely Hearts” is another one where the typical trick with the harmonies making the chorus sound like such a huge moment took a couple listens to win me over completely, but quickly became another of my favourite tracks here – it’s a great melody line that’s right in the sweetest spot of JoJo’s range. The lo-fi and vintage effects on the contemplative piano instrumental of “Think About You” really draws me into the vibe the whole album is trying to present as well, even if the song itself isn’t one of the more novel concepts.
JoJo is actually, unsurprisingly, at her absolute best on this project on the three of the songs that follow the moody trap trends of today the least. The track “Gold” opens with a triumphant ascending vocal run that persists in the background as some lazy guitar notes and the ever-present hi-hats drop, but JoJo’s vocal approach to this track is a lot more Mariah and a lot less early-Weeknd. With some syncopated and breathy notes in the chorus, JoJo both attacks some refreshing rhythms in the middle of this album and some of the most impressive vocal moments here on a short track that shows off everything that she can do. “Man” was a great choice for a lead single, really blending both sides of the album together into what should be a surefire hit. The soulful harmonies are still there, but they come through to match the shorter and punchier phrases JoJo offers as the hip-hop beat drops and envelops the track and JoJo’s vocal ad-libs get more and more virtuosic as the track builds up. The closing track “Don’t Talk Me Down” is the most impressive vocal showcase of all – backed by some jazzy chords, JoJo goes full lounging-on-a-piano mode as the strings swell up and the chorus really makes use of the waltz tempo with some huge piano strikes on the 3rd beat followed by an electrifying silence.
good to know continues to prove that JoJo is one of the most impressive vocalists in the game at the moment, but paradoxically seems a lot more catered to a focus group AFTER getting herself out of the clutches of big record labels. Of course, the formula works for a reason, but I’d love to see her continue to search for her own artistry.
Favourite Tracks: Don’t Talk Me Down, Gold, Man, Lonely Hearts
Least Favourite Track: So Bad