The Two Sides of Jason Derulo: Here's How He's Still Winning

Jason Derulo
Getty Images

With another Top 10 hit under his belt, the pop singer has continued to find success by operating in two musical modes.

Which Jason Derulo is your favorite Jason Derulo? Is it the unshakably positive, PG-romance dance-pop personality? Or the author of a new strain of bumping, faux-crass club thumpers? There are two Jason Derulos: the Sweet Talker, and the Dirty Talker. Sweet Talker Derulo has been around the world, but might not necessarily speak the language; Dirty Talker Derulo asserts that, no, your booty does not need explaining.

Perhaps more than any other artist in pop, Derulo has created a perfect equilibrium between his two modes, allowing his split personas to feed off of and support each other. And it's working commercially: on this week's Hot 100 chart, the singer's "Want To Want Me," the lead single to his upcoming Everything Is 4 album, bumps up one spot to No. 10, becoming the sixth Top 10 hit of his career. Derulo has seemingly been everywhere -- The Voice, Ellen, American Idol, the iHeartRadio Music Awards -- engraining "Want To Want Me" into our culture at large, and sure enough, the song has caught on at radio, reaching the Radio Songs chart's Top 10 in just six weeks. Derulo's new single now has serious song of the summer potential.

But "Want To Want Me" isn't even a fluke hit: Derulo has been winning at pop radio for months by ping-ponging back and forth between his dueling characters. Before "Want To Want Me" there were "Trumpets," "Wiggle," "Marry Me" and "Talk Dirty" in reverse order -- four songs alternating between two clear-cut styles of pop music, and all Top 40 hits. There's no reason to expect the pattern to discontinue with Everything is 4. After "Want To Want Me," a decisive Sweet Talker single, Derulo will likely swivel to a Dirty Talker track, then to a Sweet Talker track next, and back and forth it will go. Derulo has copped to being perceived as an artist without an image. Now, he has two of them.

Pop Shop Podcast: Nathan Sykes Interview, Alabama Shakes, Mariah Carey & More

Beginning with 2009's "Whatcha Say," which niftily flipped a piece of Imogen Heap's single "Hide and Seek" into a mid-tempo soul cry and spent one week at the top of the Hot 100 chart, Derulo dutifully played the neighborly sweetheart of synth-pop. "Whatcha Say" was part of the brief Jamaican pop movement that also unearthed singers like Sean Kingston and Iyaz, but Derulo possessed a better understanding of melody and pop songwriting than those male artists, and scored Top 10 hits with "In My Head" and "Ridin' Solo" from his self-titled studio album. All of these singles were stylishly innocent Top 40 confections, playing connector to more sonically daring contemporary hits like Rihanna's "Rude Boy" and Usher's "OMG" on radio.

Derulo, meanwhile, was presented in full Sweet Talker mode, a sunny and harmlessly likable pop artist with chiseled abs and family-friendly love stories. He leaned toward upbeat R&B on his album cuts, but wasn't a heartthrob in the Trey Songz vein or a suave critical darling like Ne-Yo. He was equipped with pinpoint dance moves and slyly impressive vocal skills, but lacked the universality of Usher and the attitude of Chris Brown. He was… Jason Derulo. He was the guy who crooned his own name at the beginning of his songs.

And for a while, Derulo got a fair amount of burn out of being the Sweet Talker. "Don't Wanna Go Home" and "It Girl," from his 2011 sophomore album Future History, each reached the Top 20 of the Hot 100; both songs were passable dance floor bids, but neither helped develop him as an engaging artist. In January 2012, Derulo suffered a scary accident while rehearsing for a world tour, snapping a vertebra in his neck after attempting an acrobatic move that forced him to wear a neck brace for four months. In some ways, Derulo became more well-known for the dance mishap than for his five Top 20 hits. "People were asking, 'Who's this dude who hurt himself?' " Derulo told Billboard last year. "'Is that the dude who sings this song? Oh, shit, and he sings all these other songs I know?'"

By the time "The Other Side" was released in 2013 as Derulo's first post-injury single, Derulo's Sweet Talker sound had proven to be radio-effective but not career-advancing. While the single was yet another Top 20 hit for Derulo, an announced September 2013 album, titled Tattoos, was shrunk down to a five-song EP in the U.S. while remaining a full-length overseas. Although Derulo wasn't singing his name at the beginning of songs anymore, The Artist Formerly Known as Jasonnnnn Deruuuloooo was still making the slickly produced, inoffensive pop music that he had begun his career with. "The Other Side" was by no means a bad song or a failed single, but it was the same thing Derulo had been saying for four years.

And then, Derulo came up with a new phrase. "Talk Dirty," a brash pop-rap cut featuring a reliably goofy verse from 2 Chainz, shot to No. 3 on the Hot 100 and became the top-selling single of Derulo's career (4.19 million downloads to date, according to Nielsen Music). At long last, Derulo had stumbled upon a new identity: the slithering, game-spitting celebrator. The Dirty Talker side of Derulo was not exactly a hip-hop artist, but he sounded more at home next to a hip-hop artist on a track; he was more overtly sexual than the Sweet Talker, but with a cornball sheen, able to deliver lines like "I got lipstick stamps on my passport/I think I need a new one" with a wolfish grin. Derulo had also found a sonic muse in the producer Ricky Reed, the mastermind of the hip-pop project Wallpaper., whose productions are often designed with a jaunty instrumental riff anchoring the primary hook. On "Talk Dirty," Derulo ramps up the energy on the pre-chorus, intones the phrase "Talk dirty to me," then gets out of the way and lets a Balkan horn phrase do the heavy lifting.

"Talk Dirty" is a lovably unsubtle party song, and the important thing to remember in Derulo's case is that there just aren't a lot of artists successfully making that type of music. Pitbull is good at it, but isn't overtly silly enough. Flo Rida still wears the guise of a rap artist, and the Black Eyed Peas have been on hiatus for a while. With "Talk Dirty," Derulo essentially inhaled the ashes of LMFAO and emerged as a fist-pumping party-starter preoccupied with booties (but not asses, so breathe easy, parents). The music of Dirty Talker Derulo impressively walks a fine line: it can be played at a club, and at a Bar Mitzvah.

From the moment "Talk Dirty" started taking off in the U.S. in early 2014, one could detect a change in the way Derulo was branded. His third album was back on in the U.S. for an April 2014 release, with a new title (Talk Dirty instead of Tattoos) and a refreshed album cover (shirtless Derulo being groped by female hands, instead of an animated closeup of Derulo's head). Rappers like Snoop Dogg, Kid Ink and Tyga dotted the Talk Dirty track list, along with producers like DJ Mustard and Timbaland. But Derulo was not being remolded as solely an urban act -- at that point, his history as a pop artist would have prevented a full-on bait-and-switch. Instead, Derulo began a balancing act, representing his Sweet Talker and Dirty Talker sides with alternating singles and beginning the most successful (still ongoing) Hot 100 run of his career.

Jason Derulo's 'Everything Is 4' Track List Features Jennifer Lopez, Stevie Wonder, Meghan Trainor

After "Talk Dirty" came a brief revisit to "Marry Me," the sweet mid-tempo ballad dedicated to then-girlfriend Jordin Sparks, and then "Wiggle," a screwy big butt anthem featuring Snoop Dogg that returned Derulo to the Top 10. Then, the Maroon 5-esque pop track "Trumpets" came, and graced the Top 20. The Sweet Talker side hasn't really developed past the voice first heard on "Whatcha Say," and the Dirty Talker tracks -- which have mostly been produced by Reed -- are still drawing from the "Talk Dirty" sound ("Wiggle" and new track "Get Ugly" trade the Balkan horns of "Talk Dirty" for toy flutes and a dribbling vocal chant, respectively). But Derulo has been tweaking his two modes just enough as they are used to offset each other, so that audiences never grew sick of either style. And the strategy has so far worked beautifully.

Judging from the songs that have been released from Everything Is 4, due out June 2, Derulo's new album will not make him critically respected, but will continue his winning ways. The second song released from the album was "Get Ugly," a Dirty Talker track that begins with the line, "Oh my, oh my, oh my God/This girl straight, and this girl not." "Get Ugly" is a distant cousin to "Shots" and sounds like an absolute smash. After that, Derulo issued an far-reaching pop song titled "Cheyenne" that evokes fellow Sweet Talker Bruno Mars. Meanwhile, Derulo is putting in his bid as an albums artist: Everything is 4 will feature appearances from Jennifer Lopez, Meghan Trainor, Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban (the latter two on the same track!), and there's no chance Derulo's LP gets downgraded to an EP this time around.

Give this to Derulo: he's a survivor. He bounced back from a terrifying neck injury, and from the pre-"Talk Dirty" threat of monotony. Now he's outlasting his contemporaries by honing the pair of sounds in which he operates most effectively. Derulo may only do two things, but he does them very, very well.