Mr. Derulo, Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban. There are no typos or factual errors in that sentence.
Derulo, it’s instructive to start with “
“Broke” begins with Mr. Wonder singing “mo’ money, mo’ problems,” after which Mr. Urban slashes a few chords on the banjo. Mr. Derulo then arrives, whining about women wanting him for his money, so better that he has none. Then Mr. Wonder returns, playing hyper, shrill blues harmonica. Later, there are Usher-esque tender tones from Mr. Derulo, militaristic Southern hip-hop chants, and hootenanny handclaps. At the end, Mr. Derulo shouts, “Stevie, play for ’em!” And Stevie plays on.
What just happened here?
Not all of Mr. Derulo’s new album, “Everything Is 4” (Beluga Heights/Warner Bros.), is this sort of kitchen-sink pileup. Mr. Derulo is a reliable pop star, though not an especially bold one. And even now, in the context of taking some risks, he’s still leaving few fingerprints. That a possibly chaotic song like “Broke” is so seamless and effective — even one-upping Kesha and Pitbull’s unlikely dance-country smash “Timber” in its easy hybridity — is more hard proof of Mr. Derulo’s strategic neutrality.
Mr. Derulo may be the only true cross-genre pop star of the day, moving among styles with such fluidity that he barely leaves a lasting impression on any of them. He’s not an R&B singer straining for pop acceptance, not a pop singer toughening up with hip-hop-inflected songs. Hell, he’s not much of a singer at all — capable and flexible, but not robust. He has a voice — sometimes tissue-thin, almost always digitally boosted — that seems designed to be sublimated into his surroundings. He is tofu.
And yet “Everything Is 4” is his second strong album in a row — not as sui generis and unlikely as last year’s “Talk Dirty,” which teemed with persistent quirk and relentless dance floor assaults, but odd in new ways. Here, Mr. Derulo is a shameless collaborator, a gleeful regurgitator of styles, and one of the most surprisingly savvy decision makers in pop.
“Talk Dirty” established Mr. Derulo as something more than the airless Auto-Tune warrior of early singles like “Whatcha Say” and “In My Head,” by showing him as someone willing to take risks with his production. “Wiggle,” “Trumpets” and the title track were among last year’s most creative pop singles.
But he’s not relying on the same tricks here, apart from the buoyant and silly “Get Ugly,” in which Mr. Derulo celebrates “jeans so tight I can see loose change,” and “Pull Up” which, with baby-squeal production and its derrière-centric worldview, is a clear update of “Wiggle.”
Notionally, Jason Derulo is an R&B singer, but he doesn’t lean on melisma.CreditScott Roth/Invision, via
Instead, Mr. Derulo is branching out. The album begins with synth-pop and soul that dates to the mid-1980s. “Want to Want Me,” in the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, is exuberant and blushingly ecstatic about desire; it could practically be a track from the New Kids on the Block’s debut album. It’s followed by the sinister “Cheyenne,” which features sleazy guitars by Orianthi atop nighttime-creep synths.
Notionally, Mr. Derulo is an R&B singer, but he doesn’t lean on melisma, and there’s little husk to his voice: His canvas is largely blank. This pliability is an asset when collaborating — he never forces someone out of their comfort zone. Sometimes Mr. Derulo can even be inspired by good company, like on “Love Like That,” a duet with the angsty soul queen K. Michelle, who inspires Mr. Derulo to a credible imitation of mainstream R&B.
But mostly he is an accommodationist. He is savvy enough to not work Jennifer Lopez too hard on the faintly Caribbean “Try Me” and tolerant enough to ease Meghan Trainor into cursing on “Painkiller.”
He is also brazen enough to rip off a concept wholesale from another emerging genre straddler, Sam Hunt. Mr. Hunt is more or less a country singer. Often less than more: He also raps, does a lusty soul croon and seems capable of the low, depressive groan that was a hallmark of early-2000s mainstream rock.
Last year, Mr. Hunt released the single “Ex to See,” on the EP “X2C” (MCA Nashville). It was a lacerated number about being used by a woman to make her ex jealous, and one of his best songs. Mr. Derulo may well have been listening, judging by the final song on this new album. It’s “X2CU,” and though the lyrics and song structure are different — Mr. Derulo’s song has a shimmery chorus that owes a debt to Morris Day and the Time — the conceit is much the same. Mr. Derulo’s take on the subject, though, mostly skips the tension in Mr. Hunt’s song, trading it for glib passion.
Should Mr. Derulo and Mr. Hunt have a face-off, a war of words? Should they share a stage, like the R&B aristocrat Brian McKnight and country soft-man Mark Wills, who both had a hit with Mr. McKnight’s “Back at One” in 1999, and sang a duet on the Miss USA pageant in 2000? Should they collaborate on a remix taking in elements of both songs? Mr. Derulo has created an album — and a worldview — where that would fit right in, but he’s probably already on to the next thing.