On Aug. 22, Jason Derulo will roll into Chicago to kick off the Magnificent Mile Shopping Fest, where he’ll take the stage and serenade fans with his beloved R&B hits while surrounded by models sporting fall fashions.
But a year ago, the singer wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to perform again. Derulo, 23, remembers what he calls “the scariest moment of my life” like it was yesterday. “I was rehearsing for my world tour, doing back-tucks, trying to condition myself, and I slipped,” he recalls. “I landed on my head and I broke two vertebrae. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Will I ever be able to dance again? Will I ever be able to walk again?’ ”
Before the injury, Derulo was well on his way to pop superstardom. The singer/songwriter had sold more than 25 million tracks worldwide, written a string of Top 10 singles and was on the cusp of headlining an international tour to promote his upcoming album. Behind the scenes, though, Derulo’s life was considerably darker.
“I came out with my first hit single [2009’s “Whatcha Say”] when I was just 19 years old,” he explains. “You’re out having drinks, partying every night, living a little too crazy. I remember walking in the airport like I was a zombie because I hadn’t gotten any sleep; I’d been drinking the whole night prior,” he says. “Day after day, it takes a toll on you. But my whole mentality was just like, ‘Yo, I can do this. This is autopilot.’ ”
Breaking his neck — an incident that Derulo now attributes to that fatigue — was a much-needed wake-up call. “I changed as a man,” he says. “I was able to take a look at my life and decipher what was positive, what was negative.”
Derulo spent the next seven months in a neck brace, struggling to complete even the simplest of tasks, like showering and tying his shoes. Despite this, he calls the experience a “blessing in disguise” — he spent the majority of his recovery writing his new album, “Tattoos.”
“I really feel like it’s my best album to date,” says Derulo. “I feel like I’ve finally grown into myself.” The album’s title reflects his newly heightened self-awareness: “Tattoos are like our life experiences,” he explains. “They stay with us for the rest of our lives. Some we love, and want to share with the world, and some we want to hide.”
If Derulo seems unusually mature for a 23-year-old, it’s partly because he’s been working in the industry since he was 16 — and writing songs since age 8. In fact, the Miami native can still recall the very first song he wrote. “It was called ‘Crush on You,’ ” he says, laughing. “I wrote it about this girl in my class, but I chickened out and didn’t sing it for her.” When 8-year-old Derulo wasn’t penning odes to his classmates, he was honing his dances moves. “I’d be in front of the TV, trying to emulate Michael Jackson to a T,” he says. “It was that performance element — somebody who was able to put on a dope show, to have you on your feet — that intrigued me.”
While still in high school, Derulo began sending his songs to production companies. Almost immediately, rapper Birdman picked up a song by Derulo called “Bossy,” and for the next several years, Derulo crafted hits for the likes of Diddy, Lil Wayne and Danity Kane. But he still craved his own shot at the spotlight. “I became this ghostwriter, but I was still doing my thing, making songs, trying to get a demo together,” he says.
In 2009, it was Derulo’s turn: With the help of hitmaker J.R. Rotem, Derulo released “Whatcha Say” to international acclaim, selling more than 5 million digital downloads and reaching No. 1 in the U.S. and New Zealand. Derulo was in the studio at 4 a.m., hard at work on his debut album, when he heard the tune on the radio for the first time. “It was inexplicable,” he says. “You work on something for your whole life, and to see it finally come to fruition is such a crazy rush.”
The next few years were filled with what Derulo calls “pinch-me moments.” He became the first male artist in history to have his first two singles hit No. 1, put out two best-selling albums and quietly began dating Jordin Sparks, the “American Idol” winner whom he’d met when she attended one of his concerts. “I had so many moments that I couldn’t believe were happening,” he recalls. “Selling 25 million worldwide … Really?”
When his neck injury brought his red-hot career to a screeching halt, Derulo was bereft. That is, until Sparks stepped in, flying straight to Miami to take care of him. “She was just amazing,” he says. “At my lowest low, she was at my side.”
Before the incident, Derulo admits that he’d kept Sparks at arms’ length. “I wasn’t looking for a relationship. I thought she was a nice girl, I liked spending time with her, but I wasn’t ready for that kind of lifestyle,” he says. “But [after the injury], I just realized what a special person she was, somebody that I needed in my life. We fall more in love every day.”
That adoration for Sparks is behind much of “Tattoos.” “I’d say she inspires most of the songs at this point in my life,” says Derulo. He points to one song, called “Marry Me,” as the most personal. “It’s from the heart. She’s in love with it.” As for whether fans should take the lyrics literally? Derulo says the pair will “definitely” walk down the aisle. “One day, for sure. When the time is right.”
Though they’re often separated for work, Derulo is adamant that he and Sparks make time for one another whenever they can. “There’s always something that [management] wants you to do,” he says. “You just have to put your foot down. Life is not all about your work.”
To that end, Derulo has also recently made time for another one of his passions: politics. While recovering, Derulo says he received a call from President Barack Obama, asking the singer to help him share the facts about the Affordable Care Act with his younger fans. It’s an issue that’s close to Derulo’s heart, both because of his own injury and because of his family, who he says struggled to secure health insurance when he was growing up.
“A lot of kids my age just don’t know about Obamacare. Obama wants me to share how beneficial it can be for our next generation,” says Derulo. “It was life-changing. How often do you have a 45-minute conversation with the president at his house?”
The experience was yet another “pinch-me moment” to add to Derulo’s ever-growing list — but as a result of his readjusted perspective, the singer says he doesn’t feel pressure to keep up the rapid pace. “I just love making music. It’s not about the accolades at all,” he says. “It’s what I’ve done my whole life, and I’m not gonna stop anytime soon. It doesn’t matter if there are 300 people listening or 300 million.”
Derulo says he began to consider longtime friend Sparks as a possible love interest in 2011. “We had a show together in the Bahamas, and we started to look at each other a little differently,” he says. “She came to my rehearsal the next day in LA, and she stayed for eight hours. I was shocked that somebody could be that interested for that amount of time.” Today, when the superstars aren’t attached at the hip, they’re tweeting each other from around the world. Here are some of their most adorable moments:
Jordin Sparks, June 30: If you see me on tv on my phone, I’m talkin to @jasonderulo. He’s across the country right now! Missing my best accessory! Hey boo!
Jason Derulo, July 15: Boss look w/ a sexy lady in red. #behindthescenes #glamourmagazine
Jordin Sparks, July 28: On a completely different note, I’m just waiting for my baby to walk through the door!
Jason Derulo, Aug. 2: We’re literally staying ON the ocean water. Paradise 😉 jordinsparks…
Jordin Sparks, Aug. 2: Happy Anniversary to my love, @jasonderulo! 2 years down, 103 to go! 😉 <3