"There was a point where I was like, 'Why am I even here anymore?'" the singer recalls of her years-long contract dispute, during which she couldn't release new music

By Jeff Nelson
Updated July 28, 2016 02:00 PM
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Credit: Brooke Nipar

After 10 years of silence, JoJo‘s officially back. But she’s got nothing to apologize for.

On Thursday, the singer – who at 13 became the youngest solo artist to score a Billboard No. 1 with her breakout hit “Leave (Get Out)” in 2004 – announced her new album, Mad Love, will drop Oct. 14 and that she’ll be on tour with Fifth Harmony through September.

She also released her first single off the album, “F— Apologies,” a moody, R&B-pop kiss-off featuring Wiz Khalifa on which she boasts enough DGAF swagger to rival Rihanna.

Now 25, JoJo (born Joanna Levesque) hasn’t released an LP since her 2006 effort The High Road due to a contentious, seven-year lawsuit with her former record label, during which she couldn’t release new music.

Disclaimer: Contains explicit language.

“I didn’t own my voice,” she tells PEOPLE.

PEOPLE caught up with the one-time wunderkind early this year as she was putting the finishing touches on the new record. In JoJo’s words, how she made her return to the pop world – and why “2016 has to be the year that it happens.”

You were released from your record dead in 2014, and you signed with Atlantic Records: How does it feel to be liberated?
It felt surreal for a while. I just wasn’t believing that it was really happening: I thought I was going to wake up, and it was going to be a really mean dream, and I was just so excited. But now it feels real as f—, and I just love it. I feel like myself again. I’ve been singing since I was 2 years old, so this is really an extension of who I am, and I’m just really thankful that there are people who have stuck by me and people who still want to listen.

Take me through the years you were going through the lawsuit. Were you still writing and recording?
At 17 or 18, I started recording this third album that has yet to come out. I’ve recorded hundreds of songs that, unfortunately, will not be able to heard – for a variety of reasons, not because I don t want people to hear them. Hundreds of songs. There’ve been several incarnations of this album. I never stopped recording. That’s why when people ask, “How does it feel to be in the studio again?” Well, it feels very normal because I’ve been in the studio for the past seven years.

I never left. But there was a point where I was, like, “Why am I even here anymore? Why am I in the studio? No one’s going to hear this.” I was in a bad contract. I had to sue my previous label. I didn’t own my voice.

I was writing these songs myself, but I was like, “I can’t put out songs for free without getting the permission without getting the producers and the co-writers, and I don’t feel comfortable putting out people’s work with out giving them compensation. We deserve to be compensated for our work.”

But that was a real bummer, not knowing if people would ever hear what I was doing – but I had to stay creative or else I would have gone insane. I always kept that hope alive, that one day it would pay off in the form of being able to put out a full-length album again and that I could play these songs for somebody who would then take me on in the next chapter.

You released your ”tringle” of three new singles last August.
That felt absolutely amazing. What I want to do is continue to release content, and that’s what it’s about: getting back in the pool, fully immersing myself, then swimming laps, then winning.

Your first albums were full of poppy R&B, and you’ve experimented with dance music on recent projects. What can we expect on the new album?
I want to make sure that my roots are represented, that my identity comes through. I love dance music – house has really given me life and really made me feel confident and fabulous and empowered, so I wanted to infuse some of my music with those feelings that it gives me. But what I’m doing now is kind of just getting back more to my R&B roots.

So the album is eclectic: because I am. I’m influenced by so many different things. And the things that I’ve gone through in the past few months have definitely made me feel like I can go back into the studio and make sure that all bases are covered.

Your dad died in November. Will that influence the album?
It has, not that I’m writing about that loss specifically. I have. But my dad’s and my language was music: That’s where we really bonded the most; that’s where he was most alive. And so in his passing, in his absence, I want to be truer to myself than ever. I want to live in his free spirit because he was such a free spirit. And I want to make sure that that soul that I grew up listening to and his kind of his influence on me. I want to give some of that.

In January, you released the music video for your song ”Save My Soul,” which was inspired by your dad’s addiction. Why was it important to you to share that?
It’s always been a reality in my life, but because of the anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous, I always felt like it wasn’t appropriate to say that I had grown up in the program – because my parents were in it, and I knew those principals very well.

But in talking to my mom and just embracing that this was my truth, this was my experience, seeing them in and out of that and being sober and falling off… I started to feel a little less guilty for talking about it because when you don’t have that stability of knowing if your parents are going to be around or how they’re going to be when they’re around – that affects you.

So I wanted to talk about that because “Save My Soul” is about feeling powerless, and I’ve struggled with addiction in different forms, whether it’s addiction to love, to a person who’s not good for you, to food, to negative feelings. I’ve definitely abused alcohol; I’ve been depressed. You can just kind of go down a black hole and find yourself addicted to almost anything.

It sounds like the album was basically finished, but you went back into the studio.
Yes. Laughs So I basically almost finished the album, then I went on tour, then I realized: Transparency is so important to me. Being authentic is paramount to me. So I wanted to go back in and make sure that I was being true to that. And I just felt like there were a couple of areas where I could go deeper and go further.

And since it’s been so long since I’ve released an official album, I’m not in any particular rush to put something out and not have all systems a-go.

Who are you listening to?
A constant for me is the Kendrick Lamar album, To Pimp a Butterfly. I love it. I love his use of jazz in it. I’m a huge jazz fan; I start my morning listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and I finish my night listening to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” because I just love the spirit of jazz and the movement of it, the freedom. So I love that he paid homage to that style in the album. And just what he’s saying, I think he’s bringing up things that are very timely, and opening up certain experiences to the mainstream that maybe they weren’t aware of.

Speaking of things people maybe aren’t aware of: Your comeback inspired a Buzzfeed story called ”Dear God, There Are Children Who Don’t Know Who JoJo Is.”
I think that’s hilarious; I love it. It just means that there’s a whole new generation that was either not born… I mean, 10-year-old, obviously, haven’t really heard my stuff. It’s about reaching out to those people while also still being true to who I am and who my fan base that has grown with me is. I think it’s funny.

You came into the industry when you were 13. What’s the biggest difference between then and now?
When I was maybe 12, I went through media training, and they taught me how to be the perfect pop princess. I think they were scared that I was a little too rough around the edges, a little too … imperfect? And it’s taken me a few years to shed what I learned and to really be myself. So I think that the biggest thing is, now I don’t have those walls up.

I think I used to think I knew more than I know I know now. I know I have so much more to learn now. And I’m a lot more thankful because I’ve had incredible success, and I’ve also been at the bottom: I’ve been in deep depression. So I think I’m a lot more thankful for every opportunity, every moment – and I live in the moment so much more now, at 25, than I could at 13. I don’t know if you were living in the moment at 13, but I wasn’t. I was a little s—.

What are you most looking forward to?
I’m so excited to put out a full-length album. 2016 has to be the year that it happens. I’m used to a grind. I’m just committed to doing this for the rest of my life. And I’m thankful that I have a platform to do so.