How Jason Derulo took the biggest risk of his career – and won

The American pop singer, who is returning to Dubai next month, opens up to The National about the challenges that shaped new album Nu King

Jason Derulo returns to Dubai for a Coca-Cola Arena concert next month. Photo: Atlantic Records
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Don’t call it a comeback. For Jason Derulo, this is a rebirth.

In the early months of 2024, the American pop singer is in the midst of a career resurgence. In February, he released his first album in nine years, Nu King, which has already garnered hundreds of millions of streams. Next month, he is set to headline Dubai’s first EarthSoul sustainability music event at Coca-Cola Arena, one of the first stops on a new world tour.

For Derulo, this is not just another album, nor another concert. Both come after the most challenging period in his life. “I think I've always had this vision of who I could become in my mind, and I feel like I’m finally becoming that person in 2024,” Derulo tells The National.

To reach this point, Derulo had to risk everything. The first make-or-break moment happened behind closed doors in 2020, when, after more than a decade with Warner Bros Records, he decided to walk away from the company that helped make him an overnight sensation. “I see myself as an artist who is ever growing. I have no bounds – there is no ceiling. And when people start adding those ceilings above me, we’re going to have an issue, right off the bat,” Derulo says.

When Derulo sat across the table from the label representatives four years ago, he did not see the people who helped make him a contemporary artist unlike any who had become before him.

“I think I’m the only black artist to ever go pop first, and actually win,” says Derulo. “And I had won.

“The problem was, I was further and further removed from the people who signed me – from the people I knew, who understood me, as I understood them. There had been regime change after regime change, and those people were gone.”

Derulo felt disrespected. “These new people had the goal of finding new people. But I had been keeping the lights on for 12 years. I was one of the premiere artists on the label besides one or two other people. And we just kept butting heads. I said, ‘what are we doing here? I’ve got to go. I’ve got to be released. Let me out of this’,” he says.

Deruloknew the potential risk of his decision, but he was still confident that others would see his value. He was a proven hitmaker, someone who could collaborate with artists from across genres and produce songs that resonated the world over: Whatcha Say, Want to Want Me, Wiggle. But when he began to meet with other record labels, he felt that, five years removed from his last album, the only person who truly saw the potential that remained in him, was himself.

“I thought I was going to be received with open arms. I thought another label was going to be like, ‘oh, I’m so glad to have you. You can have whatever you’d like,” says Derulo. “And that’s exactly what didn’t happen.” Derulo's overtures were met with hesitance. Decision makers balked at the price tag, seeing him as a lower-tier star.

“They said, ‘I’m not sure this is going to work out.’ I was just like, ‘wait, what? I sold 250 million records. What are you talking about? You have the wrong guy,” he says.

“So, I didn’t sign the deal that I was not supposed to sign.”

Instead, he decided to start releasing songs independently, recording for the first time in years only for himself, following his own vision.

“My first offering was called Savage Love. My manager told me, ‘I don’t think you should put that out.’ I put it out anyway,” Derulo says.

After releasing an initial version in June 2020, Derulo approached South Korean septet BTS to incorporate vocals of members Jungkook, Suga and J-Hope to remix the track. It quickly became the second number-one song on the US Billboard Hot 100 for both artists and eventually climbed to the top spot on the company’s Global 200 chart as well.

“Suddenly, I had the number one song in the world, and as you can expect, all those same record labels came back and asked me to do a deal. I said, no, I’m not doing that,” says Derulo.

Instead, Derulo went back to Warner Bros – this time to its premiere label Atlantic Records, which had been the home of artists including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin. There, he was no longer treated as a secondary concern. Now, he was treated as the star he knew he’d always been. The singer was the first solo artist to top charts across the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s, after all.

“It was time in my life to have a true partner. I’ve been very successful, and I finally felt comfortable putting my material in the hands of people who I knew would treat it with care,” says Derulo.

“It’s been a long couple of years of me digging deep in my heart, and telling stories, and writing a lot. I’ve come up with an album that I think is my greatest work to date. And it’s very different from anything people have heard of me, or anyone else for that matter,” he says.

To get there, he had to reconnect with his roots. He stripped himself of concerns about trends and algorithms, and found every answer he needed within himself. “I’ve always been courageous, but this time I had to have the courage not to make songs to appease everyone. I had to be selfish, and create music for myself.

“It’s cinematic – even dark. This isn’t what people know me for – there’s romance and heartbreak. And most importantly,” the once famously auto-tune loving singer says, “I wanted people to hear me really, really sing.”

When he doubts begins to doubt the decision, he thinks back to his hero, Michael Jackson. He remembers the risk that Jackson took in the early 1990s with his album Dangerous, embracing new genres, writing fewer love songs and including lyrics closer to his heart.

He, too, is ready for honesty. That’s what got him back on top, and that’s what’s guiding him forward.

Jason Derulo headlines EarthSoul at Coca-Cola Arena, Dubai, on May 4

Updated: April 05, 2024, 6:21 PM