JoJo Is The Undisputed Queen Of The Well-Chosen Pop Cover Song

Oh hey! I’m Sam Lansky, a name you probably recognize from that one time back in July when JoJo told me she loved me on Twitter, and I spent the next month shaking and crying. It’s Thursday, which means it’s time for another round of “Pop Think”!

This week, we’re talkin’ bout how tween-pop-queen-turned-grown-ass-woman JoJo has mastered the art of the cover, as evidenced by several of her covers going viral and some seriously showstopping performances on her recent tour. But is it all too little too late for this cover-crazy chanteuse? (Hint: No. No, it’s not. Because JoJo is a flawless icon.)

Time to jump some trains, y’all — our destination is the top of the charts.

Credit: Getty Images

Last month, when JoJo embarked on her free mini-tour benefiting breast cancer charities, she took the opportunity to perform a different acoustic cover of a well-loved pop hit at each show: Lady Gaga‘s “Paparazzi,” Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” Rihanna‘s “What’s My Name” and Amy Winehouse‘s “You Know I’m No Good.” As usual, Jojo imbued each song with her signature delivery, which is effortlessly soulful and unusually emotionally charged. The kind of melismatic vocal gymnastics that lesser artists might perform showily JoJo does without blinking an eye. Seriously. That voice is powerful, chill-inducing and layered with feeling.

It reminded me that JoJo has become the Queen of the Cover in recent years, as the embattled songbird was caught up in a knotty legal battle with her former label Blackground, which prevented her from formally releasing music for about five years. That never stopped JoJo’s productivity, though — she’s been in the studio nonstop, and her 2010 mixtape, Can’t Take That Away From Me, is one of my favorite albums (despite not being an actual album) of the last several years. (That’s right — JoJo makes a superb, eclectic set of searingly good pop tracks, and then just gives it away for free. JoJo: “Here are some random tracks I threw together in the studio.” World: *dies*.)

But what has really generated buzz for her wasn’t just her cutting, brilliantly bitter promo single “The Other Chick” or “Disaster,” the thrillingly melodramatic first official single off her upcoming album, Jumping Trains (though the video for “Disaster” clocked more than a million views on Vevo within a week). It’s her covers. Those live covers, of course, are all kinds of genius, but even more than those, JoJo’s known for game-changing renditions of hip-hop tracks — taking already fantastic songs and giving them that signature JoJo something, an edge that’s emotionally complex and, at it best, profoundly affecting.

+ Read more about JoJo’s covers after the jump.

I love when she takes on Drake, an artist who bears some similarities to JoJo — both straddle pop and urban markets seamlessly and make music that leans more melancholic than the norm. But when JoJo adds her velvety vocals to the cunning compassion of “Houstatlantavegas” or piteous drunk-dialing anthem “Marvin’s Room,” it’s like being punched in the gut. I’ve yet to encounter a person who wasn’t blown away by her version of “Marvin’s Room” — since it premiered on Rap-Up back in June, it’s amassed 16 million (!) hits and more than 22,000 (!!) comments on YouTube. (I’m pretty sure it’s my most-played track of the year, too.) An unpretentious masterpiece of stripped-down minimalist R&B, ambient drums and the occasional tinkle of piano keys put the spotlight on Jo’s bitterly resigned vocal delivery — like Mary J. Blige as produced by the xx.

Because when JoJo covers a song, whether it’s a seemingly extemporaneous live version of a beloved Amy Winehouse song or her own spin on a moody Drake track, she doesn’t just “cover” it — the word “cover” implies a superficiality that isn’t at play here — JoJo inhabits it. Vocally, sonically, lyrically and most important, emotionally. With “Marvin’s Room,” JoJo’s version is thoroughly NSFW in its lyrics — I can’t think of a more triumphantly acerbic lyric in the pop lexicon than “F*** that new girl that’s been in your bed/’Cause when you’re in her, I know I’m in your head” — but there’s nothing childish about that vulgarity. Instead, it’s a haunting, wounded and enraged vocal performance.

But JoJo hasn’t been canonized the way many other artists with tremendous talent have, and it’s a tough journey for an artist with a history like JoJo’s — of being perceived by the public as a tween pop singer, and then emerging with material that’s as audaciously sophisticated as some of her new work is. Many acts have struggled, and failed, to find an artistically credible voice after being pigeonholed as manufactured pop stars. So it’s an incredibly savvy move for JoJo to perform these covers, because it means that when she does her own rendition of songs by artists like Drake or Rihanna or Amy Winehouse, fans of those artists will, maybe, be more inclined to listen to her cover than they would to a JoJo original — and fans of Drake’s clever wordplay or Rihanna’s sonic swagger or Amy’s heart-crumplingly beautiful vocal delivery will find much to love in a song like JoJo’s version of “Marvin’s Room.” (Drake, it should be noted, is himself a JoJo fan — he told Jo that she “killed it” on her version of “Marvin’s Room.”)

Most of all, though, JoJo’s propensity for covers isn’t posturing, or a novelty act. Every time she takes the helm of someone else’s song, it’s completely believable, whether it’s her playful take on T-Pain‘s “Can’t Believe It” or the glorious sadness of “Marvin’s Room.” That’s part of what makes her so accessible — she’s the girl next door who’s cooler and wiser, even at her young age, than I could ever hope to be. And even though a big part of me wishes that JoJo would just, like, hang out and talk to me about boys and feelings and why Drake is brilliant and how to become a more empowered, independent, grown-and-sexy individual, I’m glad she’s busy in the studio, and on tour, and making outrageously good covers of already-amazing songs. I don’t need to know where JoJo’s train is headed. I’m just stoked I’m along for the ride.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.