It’s hard to take your eyes off Jason Derulo — and he knows it.
Take his July 22 TikTok video, which previewed his latest single, “Take You Dancing.” Decked out in glistening jewelry, a tank top and ripped jeans, he greets users with a wink and a pearly white smile before breaking into a choreographed lip sync routine — intermittently smizing, shimmying and flexing at the camera along the way. The 15-second clip, like countless others on his page, shows off his impressive physique and slick rhythm — as well as the inspiration-filled entryway of his Los Angeles home, with blown-up images of Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama and others adorning the walls.
Four months earlier, right before California enforced its first lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Derulo met with TikTok representatives at his home to discuss best practices on the app. Isabel Quinteros, TikTok U.S. senior manager of artist relations and music partnerships, spent more than two hours driving home three of the most important facets to success — have fun, be consistent, and collaborate — with Derulo listening intently to every word.
“When Jason commits to something, he commits 100%,” she says. “Once he decided this was going to be his platform, he told me, ‘I want to be No. 1.’ ”
For the last 12 years, Derulo has been a singing, dancing top 40 magnet with a suave demeanor, an iconic self-identifying intro (which has recently returned after a long hiatus) and a steady adaptability to the latest trends driving pop music. And while other artists are currently struggling to connect live with fans during the pandemic, Derulo is multiplying his fanbase in real time with TikTok, racking up millions of views every time that he posts a clip.
Since he started posting on the platform regularly at the end of 2019, his follower count has skyrocketed from 6 million — a number that carried over from Musical.ly, which was acquired by Chinese media firm ByteDance in November 2017 and absorbed by TikTok nine months later — to more than 33 million. That puts him in the app’s top dozen creators, along with Will Smith and the app’s top user, Charli D’Amelio. And thanks to collaborations on the platform — enlisting fellow creators to complete short skits and popular dance routines — with Smith and D’Amelio, as well as other TikTok fixtures, Derulo’s following is still growing exponentially.
His success on the app has also resulted in his biggest chart hit in a half-decade. “Savage Love,” the bouncy, horn-blaring beat first created by 17-year-old producer Jawsh 685, has landed Derulo his first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2015, and makes him just one of ten artists to accomplish the chart feat in each of the first three decades of the 21st century. And beyond the United States, “Savage” has had even more success: it registered as No. 1 on Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart during the weeks of August 6 and August 13, while topping the songs charts in Canada, Australia and many countries across Europe.
It’s the latest career resurgence from Derulo, who has made a habit of refusing to allow his name to fade from the mainstream. He’s evolved consistently over the years, maturing from a reliance on glossy hooks to creating trendsetting global sounds alongside some of the now-premier hitmakers in the industry, while also building a more recognizable presence for himself outside of music along the way.
“It’s important to reinvent yourself as much as possible, otherwise people just get tired of it,” he tells Billboard — laughing as he adds, “I’ve tried everything under the sun at least three times.”
Now, with four tracks released in the span of six weeks and a massive new online following, the 30-year-old Derulo has a stronger grasp of trends driving the industry than ever. He’s also a free agent for the first time in more than a dozen years, following a falling-out with Warner Records, and positioned to be firmly in control of the next stage of his career.
“I have a creative vision that is unlike any other artist. You have to be able to move and mold with me,” he says. “Who else is at the top of the charts globally without being signed? It’s f–king crazy.”
Ever since he was a kid, Jason Derulo (born Jason Desrouleaux in 1989, to Haitian parents) has been turning heads. He wrote his first song, “Crush On You,” at just eight years old, and attended performing arts school from an early age. But he first captured the attention of his longtime manager, Frank Harris, on the basketball court.
Harris, then 25, had recently moved back to the U.S. to attend the University of Miami School of Law after spending time playing basketball in Europe. While trying to decide whether to give up his hoop dreams, he missed the deadline for on-campus housing, and had to settle for a spot 45 minutes away at a former teammate’s home in Miramar, Fla. — Derulo’s hometown.
After a month of avoiding playing basketball, Harris went to practice at a local court, and met a 13-year-old Derulo and his friends during a pickup game. Quickly impressed by Derulo’s work ethic, Harris gave him some drills, and when he saw the teenager back out on the court two weeks later, he decided to help him make his school basketball team. “The premise was that I was helping a young kid become a great basketball player,” Harris says. “And then I found out six months later that he went to performing arts school and was a singer.”
The following summer, the two took a trip to New York together, with Harris pulling a few strings with personal connections to land a handful of visits with various record labels. Shortly thereafter, Harris suggested that Derulo put basketball on pause. “We had to immerse 100% of our energies and talents collectively,” says Harris. “We got him into every talent show, every local competition [and] every state competition. If you want to get your biceps or triceps strong, you gotta keep working on it. It’s the same thing for an entertainer.”
Derulo won an episode of televised competition series Showtime at the Apollo in 2006, which he says he “thought would have springboarded me to something, but didn’t really do anything at all.” Instead, he caught his break after Tommy Rotem, brother of producer and Beluga Heights Records founder J.R. Rotem, discovered the songs that he was writing on MySpace.
“The combination of his work ethic and vision for himself [stood out],” J.R. Rotem told DJBooth in a 2011 interview. “[He] had this R&B element, but he was writing pop hooks and was also very influenced by Euro-sounding music. He thinks on a very global level.”
Things moved quickly from there. By 2008, the budding superstar had songwriting credits on tracks for Diddy, Cash Money co-founder Birdman, Lil Wayne and Sean Kingston, and landed a joint venture deal with Beluga Heights and Warner Records (then Warner Bros. Records). And by mid-2009, he dropped his debut single, “Whatcha Say”, which flipped a sample from Imogen Heap’s minimalistic, vocoder-heavy “Hide and Seek” into an infectious, pulsing hook. Thanks to a huge presence on mainstream pop radio, the track topped the Hot 100 that fall; the “Jason Deruloooo” opening had been effectively introduced to the world.
“I had different stages in my life where I thought I would be a neo soul artist or a R&B artist,” Derulo says. “Frank [Harris] and I thought pop music would impact the world the most. The rest is history.”
Derulo’s self-titled debut album, released in March 2010, landed two other top 10 hits in “In My Head” and “Ridin’ Solo.” But even amidst the impressive early-career numbers, the burgeoning star remained centered on the future. “I always focused on the next thing as opposed to being in the moment or celebrating,” he remembers. “I think that gave me a leg up for sure. Sometimes, people can get so caught up in the right now that they forget what’s coming next.”
Both he and Harris tried to get ahead of the curve by prioritizing his global appeal. The first meeting that Harris scheduled after Derulo signed his record deal in 2008 was with Warner’s international team, to learn how to better brand his client for non-American markets.
“When I went over to Europe [for basketball], it opened my eyes to how big the world was,” Harris remembers. “So, when we signed the [Warner] deal, I understood simple mathematics: there are six billion people in the world and 400 million people in America. From a pure numerical perspective, you have a chance to have a lot more success globally because of the different markets you can touch.”
Since embarking on his first tour — which was dubbed “AOL AIM Presents: Jason Derülo,” if you need a reminder of how long ago 2010 was — Derulo has catered to his international fans with a steady diet of facetime, jam-packing his world tours with regular stints in Europe and Australia, and more recently in Africa and Asia, too. The strategy hadn’t changed much prior to 2020, either; per Derulo, he spent a total of 60 days at home in Los Angeles in 2019.
“There was one month that I counted and Jason took 46 plane rides,” Harris says. “And he does everything that he can do [promotionally] — be it TV, radio or whatever. Not everybody wants to go all over the world and meet with people and the media. But Jason embraced all of that. He embraced the difference in cultures.”
That multicultural embrace has led to him soundtracking some of the world’s largest sporting events, such as Coca-Cola’s 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Colors,” or the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup theme song, “Champion.” Along the way, he’s collaborated with popular acts in global markets too, such as features on British pop hitmakers Little Mix’s “Secret Love Song” in 2016 and 24-year-old Mexican singer-songwriter Sofia Reyes’ “1, 2, 3” in 2018, or his collaborative Michael Jackson tribute track from last year, “Let’s Shut Up and Dance,” with K-pop group NCT 127 and LAY (formerly of K-pop group EXO).
The strategy has been particularly beneficial for Derulo during lulls in radio airplay and on the charts in the United States. Following the success of his self-titled debut album, his 2011 follow-up LP, Future History fell short stateside, peaking at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 and failing to nab a top 10 hit on the Hot 100. Conversely, lead single “Don’t Wanna Go Home” reached no. 1 in the U.K., with follow-up “It Girl” also cracking the top five there, as well as in New Zealand and Australia. And though Derulo hadn’t cracked the Hot 100’s top 20 in the five years prior to “Savage Love” peaking at No. 7 (so far) this summer, he remained a notable chart presence in Ireland, Germany and Sweden, among other countries.
“A lot of times artists get caught up in just [focusing on] America,” he says. “You’re doing yourself a disservice, because the world has so much to offer. There are so many cultures and people that would love to connect to you in the same way that your American fans do.”
Most recently, he’s been able to bridge that gap through the global appeal of TikTok. The app gave new life to his 2015 track “Get Ugly” in late 2019, thanks to a trend of LGBTQ+ users utilizing the song’s lyrics, “this girl straight and this girl not,” to come out to friends and family. And on his own accord, he reworked an already-viral beat on the platform (with dance entries from Judi Dench, Lizzo and Jessica Alba) created by New Zealand native Jawsh 685 into “Savage Love,” and another recognizable one by Dutch producer Puri into its steamy follow-up track “Coño.” To-date, “Savage Love” and “Coño” have served as the backing music in more than 4.4 million and 2.7 million TikToks, respectively.
“On other platforms, there’s a format: Instagram is a little more superficial, like, ‘Look at my cars, look at my clothes,” he says, laughing at the irony as he points out that he’s currently chatting from his Rolls Royce. “Whereas TikTok is like, ‘Take me as I am.’ Anybody can be tomorrow’s great. The app is creating a new rockstar.”
Derulo has managed to turn this formula into a significant revenue-maker in the absence of touring: he notes that the $75,000 per-post rumor that surfaced on Twitter in July is “way, way below” his payday per clip for sponsored content. It’s part of the reason why he expects that many other musicians will attempt to follow his path, even as conversations surrounding the future of the app’s existence — and its parent company — in the United States continue to make headlines. “I have seen a slow shift in artists trying to do it,” he says, before praising the app’s hitmaking power. “You’d be crazy not to want to pick up the app that is running your industry.”
But he clarifies that “just because you’re a [great] artist doesn’t mean that you’re going to be great at TikTok … the content speaks for itself.” And Quinteros, pointing specifically to Derulo’s creative storylines and impressive special effects in his TikTok videos, echoes that he’s currently operating in a league of his own.
“Jason is the TikTok king,” says Quinteros. “Anyone who wants to get to his level is going to have big shoes to fill.”
Even with all of Jason Derulo’s accomplishments this year, it feels like he and Frank Harris have a bigger chip on their shoulders than ever. Over the course of a handful of conversations, the two routinely point out that everything they’ve achieved has been earned — and that the most recent wave of success is no coincidence.
“We put ourselves in this position,” Harris emphasizes. “This is not serendipitous, we didn’t just bump our heads. We’re all over the world again, and we’re just getting started.”
Part of that may be due to a 2019 for Derulo that was more largely defined by his role as Rum Tum Tugger in the box office bomb Cats — a film he recently said he thought would “change the world” — and by that Instagram photo than anything else, including the November EP, 2Sides, his first project filled with original content since Everything is 4 in 2015. (He has since taken time to clap back about the film’s reviews, Instagram deleting the picture from its platform and, more recently, at those antagonizing his TikTok presence.)
On top of all of that, he spent last year becoming increasingly frustrated with his situation with Warner Records. After going through four regime changes while signed to the record label, Derulo felt as if the people calling the shots had moved on to shinier new artists, putting the best interests of his own career on the backburner.
“When you’re new at a company [as an executive], you want to let it be known that ‘I brought such-and-such new artist in,’” he says. “While these people are trying to find that, I’m not receiving the kind of attention to my projects that I deserve. It’s hard to be creative and want to work hard because you don’t have people that are on the same page. Sometimes they forget who’s keeping the f–king lights on.” (Warner Records did not respond to request for comment.)
So, Derulo and Harris — who always talk before the former makes any kind of business or career-related decision — went back to the drawing board. “When the adversity comes, all it does is make us want to work harder,” says Harris. “We strategize together and go from micro to macro with every element. The smallest detail, we’ll spend 30 minutes talking about. How else could we have been here for all these years?”
Despite still owing one album on his Warner deal, Derulo was able to negotiate a split from the label this spring without having to complete it. After officially becoming an independent artist, his next step was to dive headfirst into what he refers to as “experimentation” with different sonic elements and young producers, as he’s done throughout his career — pointing to how he scored early career hits for now super-producers Jon Bellion (“Trumpets”), Ricky Reed (“Talk Dirty,” “Wiggle”) and Ian Kirkpatrick (“Want to Want Me”).
“I’m always looking for something fresh,” Derulo says. “What is going to move me? But also, what sounds like nothing else on the radio? The joy you feel when hearing that is what has kept it really fun for me.”
The result was a batch of four new singles — the most that Derulo has dropped in any year since 2015 — in short order, negotiating one-off releases with a different label for each new track. “Savage Love” was released through Columbia in mid-June, after reaching an agreement regarding the clearing of Jawsh 685’s original beat; three weeks later, “Coño” debuted on Dutch-based label Spinnin’ Records; the following Friday, “Don’t Cry For Me” arrived on Universal; and finally, on July 23, “Take You Dancing” was released in partnership with Atlantic/Artist Partner Group.
“Jason and Frank Harris understand every aspect of creative, marketing, promo, social, and teamwork,” says Mike Caren, CEO of APG. “I wouldn’t recommend [that strategy] for all, but an experienced and patient artist who is in high demand has the potential to pull it off.”
“When we parted ways with [Warner], a lot of people we thought were friends turned their back on us,” adds Harris. “A lot of doors that were supposed to be open were closed. But we picked ourselves up by our bootstraps, we put a plan together, and we’ve got hit records all over the place now. And now we’re a free agent.”
The four tracks have combined for 614.1 million on-demand global streams according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data so far, led by “Savage Love” with 522.6 million streams — which had it been released earlier in the year, likely would’ve been a stronger contender on Billboard’s annual Songs of the Summer chart. (For what it’s worth, Derulo is too competitive to select a song of the summer that isn’t his own, claiming, “that would give that motherf–ker a little edge — I don’t want to do that!”)
Though Derulo’s drive is evidently as strong as ever, he’s insistent that he’s taking time to “smell the roses” too as he enters his second full decade in the spotlight. He’s currently residing in L.A. with his girlfriend, model and influencer Jena Frumes, and plans to spend more time at home even after touring resumes to a normal state of affairs. He also wants to continue to focus on his business ventures and acting career as he grows older, noting ultimate aspirations to become a billionaire.
“It’s important for me to build an empire that my family can stand on for years to come,” he says. “As an African-American man, it’s important to have these humongous goals. After I’m gone, I still want my name to continue to ring bells.”
Derulo is still making music on a daily basis, and though he doesn’t have any definitive plans for an album at the moment, he notes it’s coming “very soon” and would love to figure out a way to compile all of the separate releases from the summer on one cohesive body of work. And while “Take You Dancing” will be the last of his new singles for now, he used the opportunity of dropping four tracks with four different labels as something of a trial period for potential new homes — he is tentatively aiming to start looking for his next full-time partnership in the fall. Thanks to his TikTok emergence and charts comeback, he’ll have some serious leverage when negotiating.
“We couldn’t have guessed TikTok was going to happen in that way, but now that we have it as a backbone, it’s a really different conversation,” he says. “I don’t care if my record is No. 1 on the chart, I still want to see you working. I want it to be f–king No. 1 for 30 weeks.”