Jason Derulo rides solo

On his first headlining tour, young R&B star is angling for broader pop sound, bigger audience

September 30, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

His name is ubiquitous on Top 40 radio.

At the beginning of a couple of popular tracks, it's announced like a missing passenger over an airport loudspeaker: "Jason Deruuulo," the 'Der' dragged on until the beat starts.

Despite skyrocketing to the top of the charts since his debut in 2009, Jason Derulo still feels like he has to announce himself at the beginning of his new tunes, like someone who's just entered a crowded party. In several ways, he is. Derulo is just the latest in a handful of artists who started out in R&B and are branching out into dance music. But at 21, he's feeling cockier than most.

"You won't catch me on the Jay-Z or the Usher tour," he said. His new self-titled album — auto-tuned dance songs with just a hint of R&B — is a bid at capturing a broader audience beyond the urban market.

"They do a specific thing," said Derulo, who performs Friday at Rams Head Live. "I don't want to do a specific thing. I want to camouflage and grow into different things."

Derulo's rise has been a meteoric one. Born in Miami to Haitian parents, he was writing songs by the time he was 8, according to his label's biography. He attended an arts school in New York City as a teen, and at 17 penned a song, "Bossy," for New Orleans rapper Birdman.

Just a few years ago, Derulo was competing at the Apollo Theater's ruthless amateur night in New York City.

"As an audience member, you want to boo. It's the fun thing to do," he said. "Once you play there, you can play anywhere."

After some five tryouts doing neo-soul covers, he won the 2006 Grand Championship there. But since partnering with producer J.R. Rotem — who discovered him on MySpace, and who also produced, among other tracks, Rihanna's "S.O.S." — he's moved away from that sound.

The notes on his new album describe it as "an uncategorizable blend of pop, rock, electronic and R&B," a description designed to cater to just about any willing, buying listener. But the songs on the album are in keeping with the current appetite for digitized, European dance music. His voice, velvety in the more traditional "Ridin' Solo," is heavily processed elsewhere.

That's on purpose. Derulo said there was an impulse to appeal to a wide demographic. He cites as his own influences popmeisters Madonna and Michael Jackson, not titans of hip-hop and R&B like Usher and Jay-Z.

In January, he hit the road with the biggest pop star around, Lady Gaga, opening for her Monster Ball tour for six weeks.

"I just want my music enjoyed by the world," he said. "You can't do that with just being in a box. I don't want to be limited to anything."

He is part of a trend among established R&B acts like Usher (see "DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love") who are moving away from genre-specific music.

For Derulo, the strategy is yielding juicy returns. His first single, "Whatcha Say," went triple platinum in the United States, and his follow-up, "In My Head," also sold more than 2 million copies here. Tellingly, the more conventionally soulful "Ridin' Solo" hasn't exploded the way his first two singles did.

On the strength of those two singles, he's now embarking on his own 21-city tour.

It's a big step up. Until now he had only opened for acts like Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas. But the experience gave him a crash course on touring.

For instance, he's decided he can't do interviews all day long because his show suffers afterward. When he talks about his career, he sounds more determined than your typical 20-something.

"You have to learn your limits," he said. "You have to watch out for over-singing. You can fatigue easily. You have to limit your partying. I'm not going to let anything get in the way of performing my show."

Touring with others also taught got him accustomed to the screaming fans. But this time, he's sensing something different when he goes before a crowd.

"The reaction people gave Lady Gaga was really special because they were coming specifically for her," he said. "Now, it's incredible to have every single person come especially for me."

ermaza@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog

If you go: Jason Derulo performs Friday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $27.50. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.

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