Singer also talks working with Nicki Minaj and why “the audience has all the controls” in the streaming era–Elias Leight reports for Rolling Stone.
Jason Derulo‘s new single “Swalla” is an impressively rangy mishmash: The bass line nods to Chaka Demus & Pliers’ 1992 dancehall hit “Murder She Wrote”; the cheerful synthesizers recall the Haitian genre compas; and the stinging cymbals suggest 1970s disco. For good measure, the R&B singer Ty Dolla $ign contributes a languid-sounding homage to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and Nicki Minaj raps a verse that references the Dalai Lama and her ongoing spat with the rapper Remy Ma.
This sort of recklessly broad musical approach is not unusual for Derulo – few other performers have a résumé that includes collaborations with gruff Compton MC the Game, hit-making country duo Florida Georgia Line, hard-nosed electronic producer Hardwell and soul powerhouse Stevie Wonder. This strategy has been remarkably successful for Derulo, and since 2009, his various singles have gone 27-times platinum, according to the RIAA.
With 297 million streams on Spotify and another 460 million on Youtube, “Swalla” seems destined to add to Derulo’s plaque collection. It’s the lead single from a new album, due out later this year, that the singer promises will be his most vulnerable work to date. And the new record is only one piece of a blizzard of Derulo-related content that will emerge this fall: The singer is convening with Florida Georgia Line and Hank Williams Jr. to sing a new theme song for Monday Night Football; he started a label, Future History, to develop promising artists with Warner in January, plus a publishing company with Warner Chappell in May; and outside of music, his new clothing line LVL XIII – “very upscale,” he says, “mixed with street sexy” – will hit Bloomingdale’s stores in the fall.
Rolling Stone caught up with Derulo to discuss his many projects and the success of “Swalla,” which sits at Number 26 on the most recent Billboard Pop Songs chart.
When did you start work on “Swalla?”
It’s been a long time coming; I’ve been holding that song in my pocket for like a year. But it was one of those joints I wanted the world to get its hands on for a long time. It finally came out and it’s done amazing – we’re up to about three-and-a-half million sales across the world.
[The song] is a big Island thing. I wanted to create something that had a compas feel to it, which is Haitian music. Both my parents are Haitian. I wanted to bring that out to the forefront. That was a huge homage to what I grew up on.
I knew this was going to be the next single. I really wanted to come out with a Caribbean sound that was my own. There are a lot of those sounds on the radio, and I wanted to bring forth my roots. [Sings synth line] That’s classic compas all the way.
How did you connect with Ty Dolla $ign and Nicki Minaj?
I like working with a lot of people. On this album you’ll hear a lot of different people. Nicki’s of Caribbean descent as well, and she’s somebody I’ve been meaning to work with for a while now. She did a remix of “In My Head” very early on in my career, and since then we’ve wanted to get together and do something special. I think this was the perfect record. Timing is everything, and this is the perfect song for the Caribbean heads to come together. And Ty I’m a fan of as well. He’s always dope with melody.
It’s a different sound from some of your previous hits.
That’s always the goal. It comes easy because of the fact that I’m such a big fan of music. I love all kinds of music. That keeps me on my toes, always searching for a new sound, something that intrigues me. If it intrigues me, chances are it’ll stand out on the radio. I never want to blend in with the mold – I want to create a trend, never join the trend. I want things to stick out like a sore thumb.
The audience has all the controls now. It’s 2017 – even when I was first coming out, we would totally be reliant on radio. If radio didn’t say it was a hit, then it wasn’t a hit. Nowadays, with Spotify and all of these new outlets, a hit is a hit if the audience says it’s a hit. “Swalla” is a perfect example of that. In America, we’re at one-and-a-half million sales, and it was not a huge radio song. Times have changed.
Do you view the change as beneficial for artists?
It’s an amazing thing. You don’t want to be reliant on one outlet. The audience decides rather than a programmer. Though I love my programmers, and that’s a part of it as well – “Swalla” is still a Top 20 record at radio – around the world, the song is Top Three on the planet.
And this is the lead single for your next album?
There’s so much shit that I want to release right now. I’ve got so much shit. I feel like this album is my greatest work thus far. It shows a totally different side people don’t know yet – a very vulnerable side. Very vulnerable but also very vocal-centric music as well, which people haven’t gotten a huge taste of yet.
Why are you being more vulnerable now?
I do feel like there’s a void for that on radio. There’s not that vulnerable vocal R&B-pop shit right now. When I bring people into the studio to listen, they’re like, “Fuck, the world needs to hear this.” That motivated me to do more of it, dive into myself and bring out that emotional side. I’m always thinking about what’s next – what have people gotten from me, what do people like from me, and what haven’t people heard from me.
Is it hard for you to be vulnerable in your work?
No – on a song like “Marry Me,” I was putting my heart on my sleeve and letting people know how it felt. I felt like I was getting pressed for marriage; I let that out. A song like “It Girl” – that was a younger version of what I’m doing now. That was the just-becoming-a-man 21-year-old being vulnerable. That’s very different from me being 27 and having dealt with a lot more in my life. At 21 I was a very different person and a different talent.
You recently won a CMT – are you thinking about bringing more country into your sound?
For sure. The country audience has embraced me, so I intend on embracing them to the fullest. Definitely expect more from that area. Country is something I love. I’m probably going to get a house in Nashville and do a bunch more shit in that world. It’s calling me. And it’s also something I am obsessed with. And I love other kinds of music, too, so you’ll see me doing other genres in a second. I’ve been collaborating with some really awesome people. There’s super talented people everywhere, so I don’t want to limit myself to just America – especially when my international brand is bigger outside of America.
I’ve learned, leading with passion, you always win. I’m not trying to make a buck necessarily – just leading with things that I love, and it’s worked out really well.