Jason Derulo's Make-Or-Break Moment: Inside The Pop Singer's New Identity
An accident left the singer nearly paralyzed and put a career on pause. How he's got the hits, but does he have the "swag" to become an urban star?
It's 6:05 p.m. and things are bustling inside 1 OAK, the exclusive Sunset Strip nightclub that's known for hosting Oscar and Golden Globe afterparties and catering to such high-wattage personages as Bono, Jay Z and Leonardo DiCaprio. Tonight's main event: a listening party for Jason Derulo's third album, "Talk Dirty," and the 24-year-old singer-hitmaker-dancer is everywhere: on scores of postcards, mobile phone skins and packages of Red Hots candy -- party favors that lay on every table -- that are emblazoned with his sexy, bare-chested image.
While the club's waitstaff stocks the bars, security guards confer and Warner Bros. staffers fidget in anticipation. The celebration of the April 15 release kicks off in less than an hour, but equally anxiety-inducing is the fact that the label has been counting heavily on Derulo for a return to top 40 territory. Indeed, in claiming the No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, "Talk Dirty" is Warner's biggest homegrown hit since the singer's own "Whatcha Say" reached No. 1 in 2009. And in the last two years, Warner lost the bulk of its urban roster when Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group (rappers Meek Mill, Wale) segued to sister label Atlantic in late 2012 along with other acts like R&B singer Jill Scott. (Chart-toppers by Warner-associated acts Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Baauer in 2013 were promotion-only deals.)
Derulo shows moments later buff as ever, but all that muscle doesn't shield the chill backstage, where he attempts to take in a few minutes of downtime. "Thank you, that saved my life right now," says Derulo appreciatively as his girlfriend of nearly three years, "American Idol" season-six winner Jordin Sparks, drapes a lightweight jacket over his shoulders. Although prone to such exaggerated hyperbole, that's not the case when it comes to talking about his own career -- for despite racking up five top five singles in five years plus impressive song sales (totaling 19 million in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 30 million worldwide), Derulo remains a relative unknown. But the determined artist hopes this latest round of attention will put to rest the question, Who is Jason Derulo?
It's a first-world problem: Derulo had hits in such quick succession that he and his team had no time to properly strategize an image campaign. "Even though I had sold millions in America, people still didn't know who I was," he admits. Another hurdle: Derulo was never marketed as an R&B artist, something his manager Frank Harris, CEO of 23 Management, feels confused his audience. "Everyone thought he wasn't black, whatever that meant," says Harris. "That he was a corny kid who lacked swag and coolness. While Jason grew up rooted in Michael Jackson and Usher, he was just making music he enjoyed. Perceptions about him were totally off. It was hard."
Putting an effective pause to the momentum just after his sixth single, "It Girl," peaked at No. 17 on the Hot 100, was an accident that not only came close to killing his career, but almost ended his life. While rehearsing outside of Miami for a world tour in January 2012, Derulo attempted a challenging acrobatic move and accidentally landed on his head, snapping a vertebra in his neck. "He was less than an inch away from being permanently paralyzed," says Harris.
The news of Derulo's hospitalization and subsequent rehab (during which he had to wear a neck brace for four months) played out on social media (thanks to constant updates by Derulo and Sparks) and brought a flood of goodwill to the singer. In a roundabout way -- one he would never want to repeat -- the accident gave him the personality that having hit singles never projected.
"People were asking, 'Who's this dude who hurt himself?' " recalls Derulo. " 'Is that the dude who sings this song? Oh, shit, and he sings all these other songs I know?' Last year, I was blessed to chart with 'The Other Side' ["Talk Dirty"'s first single], followed by 'Marry Me.' " (Both songs are a nod to girlfriend Sparks, whom he starting dating in 2011 after they both performed in the Bahamas and who helped nurse him back to health.) "Then we slapped people across the face with 'Talk Dirty.' So it's finally starting to happen: The dots are being connected."
As are, Derulo hopes, the links between various influences -- pop, dance, R&B, hip-hop, Caribbean -- that shape the Miami native's evolving style. When he first broke on the scene in 2009, the 19-year-old newcomer born to Haitian parents and raised in suburban Miami defied perceptions. Here was an African-American male who had Chris Brown's moves, but not the attitude, who wasn't rapping or crooning R&B ballads. Instead, he was singing unabashed dance/pop confections and name-checking himself at the beginning of each song. (He has since sworn off the practice. "That chapter is done -- over and out," he says.)
Adds Derulo, who, in his teens, ghostwrote songs for Lil Wayne and others before going solo, "People didn't know my other side. But at that point in time, I was like, 'No rules.' Why not do the opposite and start in another place?"
The inverse formula worked. Tapped as opening act for Lady Gaga in 2009 and The Black Eyed Peas a year later, Derulo charted additional international and U.S. pop success in 2011 with "Don't Wanna Go Home."
Then, the ensuing recuperation period for his injury gave the singer time to step away from the whirlwind, says Harris (whom Derulo calls "the left brain of this whole thing"). "He got the chance to spend time evaluating where he was, where he wanted to go and the best way to get there," says Harris. "We let him be who he was: a more mature, sexier, edgier Jason Derulo. That's when things started to turn the corner in terms of perception."
But Derulo still had to conquer performance anxiety, and his first post-injury appearance on "American Idol's" season 11 finale in May 2012 forced him to confront that fear head on. Says Derulo: "When I was in rehearsals, the simplest moves I'd been doing my whole life now seemed like the hardest moves... There were a lot of butterflies. I didn't know how people were going to receive me back in the game."
Derulo tapped into his international fan base for last September's release of his studio album "Tattoos." A five-song EP by the same name was simultaneously issued stateside. When his next single "Talk Dirty," featuring 2 Chainz, rocketed to No. 1 in the United Kingdom and 13 other countries, Derulo found himself back in the eye of another whirlwind. Propelling the single's U.S. release in January was the viral video "Celebrities Talkin' Dirty," with One Direction, Ariana Grande, Robin Thicke and Flo Rida among the notables lip-synching along to the track.
Adopting "Talk Dirty" as the title to his 11-track stateside album, Derulo carried over four of the EP's songs. He also collaborated with a diverse lineup of producers including Timbaland, DJ Mustard, RedOne, The Cataracs and Wallpaper. The lattermost, aka Ricky Reed, produced the bass-heavy title track and the equally catchy follow-up single "Wiggle," featuring Snoop Dogg, a paean to women with a big butt ("Baby, you got a bright future behind you"). And for the first time, Derulo invited several guests to work with him, including Snoop and 2 Chainz as well as Kid Ink, Tyga, Pitbull and Sparks.
Acknowledging the album's "very apparent" urban side, Derulo says the music still retains a pop sensibility. "I didn't necessarily try to do a specific kind of music," he explains. "Each song is a different story; a roller-coaster ride. It's me having fun being myself."
Back upstairs at 1 OAK, Derulo is doing just that. As two scantily clad dancers bounce to the beats, it's on and popping as Derulo's mohawked mixer DJ Papo steps up to the DJ booth to preview several "Talk Dirty" tracks for guests ranging from Beats Music curator Julie Pilat to rapper Romeo. Behind Papo, Derulo and Sparks bob to the music. But Derulo can't resist the rhythmic temptation. He jumps down to the dancefloor for a vigorous workout with his three-man crew (to be sure, Derulo is a hell of a dancer, with stylized moves that emulate his idol Jackson). The delighted crowd cheers and cameras flash.
Still, the question persists: Can Derulo successfully bridge his past and future with "Talk Dirty"? One major-market urban radio programming director calls the title track a decent record, but still views Derulo as a "pop artist who's now trying to cross over into the urban world. And I'm not sure he's got enough swag to make the move."
Time will tell. Two days after the listening party, Derulo is in New York on the set of "Good Morning America" to announce his performance at the upcoming Billboard Music Awards plus five of the 40 finalist categories.
"'Talk Dirty' was really a selfish act; something I was doing for myself to get out of the dark spot I was in," says an undeterred Derulo. "But it truly exemplifies who I am. So being on the R&B/hip-hop charts now is both amazing and cool. That's me going back and connecting the dots. What's even cooler: There's so much more left for me to conquer."