Jason Derülo - R&B's new No 1 nice guy

Jason Derülo beat both Dizzee Rascal and Florence to the top spot on the singles chart. Matilda Egere-Cooper is on the end of his charm offensive
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The Independent Culture

As long as there are teenage girls keen to live out their puberty via fantasies of love and romance, there will, it seems, always be a market for the pop-R&B heartthrob. Having the total package – cute face, singing talent and sometimes a greasy torso – is a strong factor, but the existence of this unique breed of entertainer is also helped by having a certain likeability. Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake and Trey Songz have it, and shamed singer Chris Brown has discovered his career hasn't quite been the same without it.

So, on a scale of one to ten, with ten classifying him as the most likeable pop star ever, where would newcomer Jason Derülo place himself, ? He smiles brightly. "Ten! Some people have just got that thing," he teases, in his mild-mannered voice. "My album has been called the most fall-in-loveable album of the decade. They made that phrase up. Why? I don't know. But it's awesome."

Did he also mention that he's super confident? Not in so many words, but behind his warm manner and boyishness is a promising artist who started writing songs for P Diddy, Cassie and Lil' Wayne at 16, and had one of the biggest summer hits in 2009 with "Whatcha Say", so he has every reason to be a little smug. The song, which sampled Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek", went to No 1 on the US Billboard chart and top three in the UK. In a relatively short time, Derülo has managed to fill a gap for a new, young artist with catchy tunes and who's fairly easy to market – so much so that he got the chance to join Lady Gaga on her Monster's Ball tour last year. And now his latest single, "In My Head" has reached the UK No 1 spot.

The 20-year-old is proud of his success, but you almost wonder if he's taken tips from the Beyoncé Charm School of Media Training with gushing revelations of "recording 300 songs to make sure I had the perfect product", being "really excited to share it with the world" and hoping to "heal the world and be part of the healing process with my music". It's no surprise he's been labelled Mr Nice Guy. "I think I come off a little cleaner than I really am," he admits. "But, I always say what I mean... I never say anything to be politically correct." On cue, he reveals he likes one-night stands which, he points out, he mentioned on his album, and once slept with four women at the same time. Random sex? Sure. But a ménage à quatre? Not so believable.

"Why is it hard to believe?" he asks, looking slightly offended. Perhaps because everything about him seems so squeaky clean – from being signed by American Idol judge and Warner Bros Senior Vice-President of A&R Kara DioGuardi, to being big on philanthropy and having a smiley face in his surname. "He really is that guy," cuts in "Slash", his cousin and bodyguard who's been sitting in on the interview, and who tries to bring the debate to a close. "Yeah... I am," Derülo concedes. "But I do have one-night stands," he adds, with a cheeky wink.

Still, he refuses to be pigeonholed with the rest of his competition, shunning the R&B label. "I just make pop music," he shrugs. "My music has so many different influences, like my second single has rock guitars and rock drums in it. That's not R&B. And I don't think just because I'm black I have to be an R&B singer. That shouldn't be the requirement. I have pop-rock songs on the album. For a long time I was trying to figure out who I was and what area I wanted to go in. At one point I did want to be a rock singer... at one point I wanted to be a gospel singer. I realised I didn't have to choose, I could just make music and whatever came out, came out. It's unfair to put me in that box, but I'm new so I'll take that for right now. They have to put me somewhere."

He says that, on a recent trip to Germany, they classified him as "black music". He didn't like it. "What is that?" he asks, frowning. "That's terrible. I don't agree with that word at all. Just because I'm black doesn't mean I have to make a certain kind of music. You can't say music is a certain colour... I was like horrified when I heard that. Black music shouldn't be a title."

His eponymous debut album is a collection of contemporary, beat-driven stand-alone tracks produced mainly by the acclaimed JR Rotem (Britney Spears, 50 Cent and Rihanna). "I wanted to make an album full of singles and something that people wouldn't have to continually skip, skip, skip... and I think we've accomplished that." Most of the songs focus on love and his own experiences of heartbreak, being cheated on and meeting girls. "Whatcha Say" was even inspired by his brother cheating on his girlfriend, but them later getting back together. Does he consider himself to be clued-up when it comes to love? "No – I don't think I'm an expert at all" he says. "I don't think it's be cool to be an expert either. I'm cool learning about it. I'm still learning. I'm only 20!"

Born Jason Desrouleaux in the small town of Miramar in Florida, he was raised by Haitian parents, along with his older brother and sister. He says that, by the age of five, he knew he "wanted to be cool like Michael Jackson" and, by seven, he sang "Ben" at his first "serious gig" at a well-known venue in Miami. By eight years old, he would commute for more than two hours to Fort Lauderdale, where he learned dance, theatre, and sang classical music in the choir. When he was asked on careers day what he wanted to be when he grew up, he only put down one thing.

"I got so much crap for it because you had to have a list of things and I was like, 'no, I'm not going to be anything else but a performer... this is what I'm doing, this is what my life is gonna be'," he says.

After a chance meeting with Lil' Wayne's mentor, and Cash Money Records mogul, Birdman, he began his professional songwriting career when he graduated from high school. In the same year, he also won the grand finale of the legendary US TV show Showtime at the Apollo. He briefly attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, but was discovered by Rotem, who quickly signed him to his label Beluga Heights, with DioGuardi's blessing. Derülo was whisked to LA and spent five months working on his album, and, since the release of his second single, "In My Head", has started to grow comfortable with his fame.

"It's really new, so when people shout 'Jason!' I'm like: 'What? Do I know you from high school or something?' People will be staring or pointing and I'm like, 'what are they staring at?' Sometimes I forget that I'm famous. I was in the gym one time in LA and this dude came up to me... he was like, 'Jason Derülo? Shit man, I love your song man. It's friggin awesome!' But it's cool. I'll never turn down an autograph."

Derülo's only concern at this stage in his career is that he won't go from strength to strength. "My biggest fear is in trying to better myself and not being able to," he says. "It's always been my thing, me competing against myself and thinking, ' what can I do better, how can I step my game up?' As soon as I reach that point where I can't get better, then I'll be ready to retire."

The album 'Jason Derülo' and the single "In My Head" (Beluga Heights/Warner Bros) are out now