Dubai Music Week: Jason Derulo Exclusive

ShortList magazine’s first cover star opens up about life-defining music, fanatic groupies and a near death experience ahead of his gig on September 23 at Dubai Music Week…

Jason Derulo is telling us a story about suggestive selfies when the line goes dead. Far from stopping the interview, or getting a member of his team to deal with the technical issue, he rings us straight back on his brother’s mobile phone. “Hey, what’s up?” he says with that cool Miami inflection for which he’s known, before carrying on with the story.

The casual, conversational delivery, though, does rather belie the 25-year-old’s status as the most important man in urban music. In 2014, for instance, he was the most played artist on US radio. In the UK, his single “Want to Want Me” has just been confirmed as the biggest selling single of the summer, shifting nearly 400,000 copies between June 1 and August 31. He now has no less than ten platinum-selling singles.

These numbers aren’t a reflection of a new-found love of slinky, late-night R&B. Instead, they signal Derulo’s ability to craft mega-pop songs with a huge dollop of “love me, baby” soul, bridging a gap last crossed by Usher, whose career offers the closet parallel. His 2014 single “Talk Dirty” has inspired a chartful of imitators, including Flo-Rida and pop’s newest princess, Ariana Grande. He’s even managed to attract bona fide critical acclaim: the usually unsympathetic reviewers over at Pitchfork said this of his “poetic” recent album Everything Is 4: “It’s not about nuance or distinction: it’s about impact, drawing the most inclusive and thereby, most powerful, emotion out of three minutes and change.”

Impressive stuff, sure, but what about those selfies? He has, as if we couldn’t guess, obsessive fans – fans who have very few filters when it comes to the pictures they send him. “Yeah I mean, I get a bunch of those,” he laughs. “It depends what you think is crazy… I don’t think that’s crazy at all.”

This is the modern world of celebrity, and it’s one Derulo seems to be managing to navigate with as much alacrity as humanly possible. Just before our interview, he tweeted an aggravated follower to apologise for ignoring her. “It’s a touchy situation,” he explains. “I never want anybody to feel like they’ve been slighted or like I think that I’m better than them in any kind of way. When situations like that come about, of course I can’t nip them all in the bud, but I try to send a message. It takes a couple of seconds and hopefully she forgave me.”

Although the subject of infatuated admirers is something Derulo clearly doesn’t want to delve further into, when asked about his major musical influences, the answer betrays the nature of his fame. His favourite song, he says, is “Dirty Diana”, a track Michael Jackson wrote about particularly belligerent groupies who would do anything to close to a star. “It was my favourite song before it spoke my life. And now it speaks my life so it’s even more of a favourite,” Derulo explains.

Much like Jackson, he is developing track record for writing hits. Before making his chart debut with “Whatcha Say”, Derulo wrote music for the likes of Lil Wayne and P Diddy. With his fancy footwork, powerful vocals and ability to navigate through the hit-making formulae with relative ease, the parallels with Jackson are obvious. It’s no surprise that “Ben”, which has become something an Annie for aspiring young soul singers, was the first song Derulo ever sang in front of an audience as an enthusiastic eight-year-old.

The audiences aren’t quite Jackson-esque yet. But they’re on their way. This year he’s playing arenas from the UK to Australia. The next time he gets on a plane, it’ll be to see the UAE contingent of Derulo devotees at Dubai Music Week. “Honestly it’s incredible to receive that kind of love so far away from home. It’s a love affair between Dubai and me,” he tells us with enthusiasm that seems genuine, despite a city-hopping schedule that probably makes it difficult for him to remember where he is or where he’s been.

“The parties are amazing, [Dubai] is one of my favourite party places in the world. It’s more about the vibe and the people. There’s lots of tourists and everybody’s there to have a good time. It’s really carefree because I feel like everybody is on the same page. For sure, I’m partying every single time.”

And he really is. Since breaking up with long term beau Jordin Sparks last year, Derulo has been off the wagon. Although he’s known for being obsessively healthy and dedicated to work, his Instagram reads like an Entourage series – friends, clubs, girls, celebrity pals, cars and plenty of late nights. Single-status and fame aside, he attributes his full-throttle attitude to something much more serious. In 2012, while rehearsing for a show, Derulo landed badly attempting a backflip and broke his neck. It was an accident that immediately halted his emergence, as well as put his life in jeopardy.

“I was at my lowest low,” he says. “I wasn’t able to do simple things on my own like take a shower or tie my own shoes.”

This was particularly difficult for the energetic star, whose “thing” has always been a twin assault of singing and dancing. The accident not only stopped him performing, but doctors feared he would never walk again, let alone perform another backflip on stage. “It really put things in perspective… Because you only have one life and you want to live it to the fullest. Life is too short to not enjoy every second, so I’m literally making sure that I enjoy every moment and spending time with my family when I can and partying till my head spins.”

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Another side-effect of Derulo’s recovery was a compulsion to stay healthy. His good friend The Game recently joked that he’ll take his top off wherever, whenever, as long as there are women around. But behind the ripped abs and showmanship is the reality that we have nothing without our physical health. Derulo explains that he wasn’t able to exercise properly for months. “After that whole experience I kind of kicked the whole working out thing into gear and kind of became obsessed with it. And obsessed with being healthy and wanting to better myself.”

He’s certainly done that. Global stardom didn’t come until 2013 when he was back on his feet with a newfound hunger to make it. Together with his musical exploits, Derulo is a judge on American TV show So You Think You Can Dance, alongside Paula Abdul and Nigel Lythgoe. He emits a confidence beyond his years – the result of belief in his own talent and the assurance that he’s deserving of success.

The Other Song

He carries this poise into his wardrobe, which seems to be packed with peacock-worthy outfits that would make any average Joe look like he’d borrowed clothes from an early ‘90s dressing up box. “You don’t let the clothes wear you, you gotta wear the clothes,” he explains when we ask him to teach us how to pull off a red leather ensemble, as seen on one of his recent press images. “If you put something on and it makes you feel better, you know you got the right thing on. If you just feel regular, it’s probably not the right thing for you. Clothes are the only exterior form of personality that you can give off to somebody without saying a word. So, you know I try to be sure that I’m always saying the right thing.”

If the look he’s going for is that of a baller, showman, and trend-setter, then he’s doing something right. You’d think that someone who steps out of the house in matching red leather never feels self-conscious, but Derulo admits that there are times when he gets awkward. “When I’m in a restaurant and they insist on playing nothing but me… it’s a little embarrassing,” he jokes. “I feel like they think it will make me more comfortable.” For the record, it doesn’t.

He does, however, appreciate it when one of his songs comes on unexpectedly. “It’s always a great feeling when it’s unsolicited. You know, things like getting in the elevator.” It’s been six years since the first time he turned on the radio and heard himself, and it’s a feeling that’s never left him – “I still get the same chills down my spine. It’s like the first time every time.”

To celebrate the first issue of ShortList UAE, Jason Derulo’s looks back on some notable firsts.

First time I heard my song on the radio…
This must have been in 2008 or 2009. I was coming back from the studio at about 4am in the morning, I was driving home. It was unreal, I had been waiting on that moment my whole life.

First album I ever bought…

Thriller by Michael Jackson.

First text I received this morning…

It was from one of my dancers. His name is Jeremy. We work out together every day… a couple of times a day. So he was hitting me up about the gym in the morning.

First impression of Dubai…

The architecture is incredible, unlike anywhere else in the world.

First time I bagged a ShortList UAE cover story…
Yeah… Umm… that should be fun. I’m excited.

Jason Derulo live
Dubai World Trade Centre
When: Wednesday, September 23

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