Taio Cruz: Rokstarr in The Making
Having attained Gold status with his 2008 debut album ‘Departure’, Brit Award-winning London-raised singer/songwriter/producer Taio Cruz this month returns with his highly-anticipated sophomore set ‘Rokstarr’ and its chart-topping, instantly catchy uptempo single ‘Break Your Heart’.
Dubbed by the critics “a toss-up between Babyface, Justin Timberlake and John Legend”, Taio was born in April 1985 to a Nigerian father and Brazilian mother. Going on to attend school in rural Sussex, his love of the Eighties pop/dance of Madonna and Michael Jackson soon became evident during music classes where he’d spend his time picking out tunes on the piano. Recording his first demos as a teenager, Cruz began taking his songs and productions more seriously during his college years - resulting in him prestigiously signing a US publishing deal at just 18 years old!
Meanwhile, with his talents by this time already acknowledged by such high-profile US producers as Dallas Austin (Madonna/TLC) and ‘Tricky’ Stewart (Rihanna/Mariah Carey), 2006 saw an ever-ambitious Cruz setting up his own company Rokstarr Music (hence the title of his new LP!) through which he released his debut single ‘I Just Wanna Know’. Which in turn led to him signing an unprecedented joint-venture record deal with two Universal Music companies (Island in the UK; Universal Republic in the US), following which he eventually released (in Britain) his aforementioned debut album ‘Departure’ - which impressively spawned three UK Top 20 singles (‘Come On Girl’; ‘Like A Star’; ‘I Can Be’).
Meanwhile, with his impressive CV also including a Brit Award for co-penning British pop idol Will Young’s chart-topper ‘Your Game’ plus ongoing writing/production work for the likes of Britney Spears, Usher, Justin Timberlake and R. Kelly, accomplished all-rounder Taio now reacquaints himself with Pete Lewis over lunchtime drinks at Universal Music’s buzzing Kensington HQ. Where - decked out in baseball cap, jeans and black leather jacket - he happily discusses, in soft-spoken tones, his new album; his emergence as one of Britain’s most in-demand producers; and his writing two Top Three smashes for grime MC Tinchy Stryder (‘Take Me Back’; plus the recent Number One ‘Never Leave You’).
Taio’s new, chart-topping single ‘Break Your Heart’
“We chose it as the single because I thought it sounded like a really catchy song that people would enjoy listening to - or the shortened version of that is, we thought it would be a HIT! And the meaning behind the song obviously is quite self-explanatory. It’s about breaking a girl’s heart, but in a way that’s kinda not on purpose. It’s more that I’m just a single guy, trying to BE single and trying to REMAIN single. And sometimes, when you are in that place, you get girls who wanna be a part of what you’re about - but, because you’re not really ready for a relationship, those girls can end up being heartbroken. So what I’m basically saying is ‘I might just break your heart. But I’m only gonna break your heart if you come through this way right now’.”
His forthcoming second album ‘Rokstarr’
“Once again this album shows quite a bit of scope. In that, while it’s still got underlining hip hop/dancey/R&B-type tones to it, it also has like rocky and indie rock elements. And lyrically, because essentially I come from a ballad/love song place of listening to people like Boyz 11 Men and Babyface, many of the songs do tend to be about relationships in one way or another. But the difference this time is that, as well as the full-on love songs, I am having a little bit more FUN with it all! Like, in addition to ‘Break Your Heart’, I also have naughty songs like ‘Send A Dirty Picture’! You know, I feel it’s good sometimes to just mess around with it all and have some fun. So basically that’s what this album is all about.”
How ‘Rokstarr’ primarily represents a difference and progression from Taio’s 2008 debut LP ‘Departure’
“The main difference I’d say occurs in the actual production sound, and where it’s moved MUSICALLY from the first album. You know, as a producer and a writer, I do try to show people as much scope as I can - because I wanna work with as many people as POSSIBLE! But what happens a lotta the time is, that people make assumptions about you and don’t realise you can do other things. So, the only way you can really show them is to LITERALLY show them! So that’s where I AM on this album! You know, I have songs on there like ‘Only You’, which takes it to the rock/pop place of Eighties rock bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith - people I grew up liking and that even artists like Michael Jackson were influenced by. So yeah, basically this album represents me throwing all those influences into my music in order to show people different SIDES to me.”
How he now looks back on what his aforementioned, Gold-selling ‘Departure’ LP achieved
“Do you know what? In my opinion I think it did AMAZINGLY!... You know, because I actually got signed first in America, I didn’t actually make ‘Departure’ thinking it would be released in the UK first. Instead I made an album that was very American-geared. And so, when you consider that most of the American albums that do well in the UK are really big in The States first, I’m actually very proud of the sales I achieved! You know, American R&B artists like Ne-Yo would release songs here that would chart in the 30s while I’d be charting at 20-something. So to me, for an R&B record to do that well in the UK marketplace, ‘Departure’ was a major success. And the likelihood is that, if it HAD come out in America first - as with albums by people like Ne-Yo - it would have done even BETTER!”
How - with tracks like his early-2008 UK Top Five smash ‘Come On Girl’ - Taio preceded R&B’s current obsession with Euro-dance influences
“I’ve had a few people say that I sometimes move ahead maybe too quickly and that perhaps I should wait and become a follower of trends instead. But the fact is, I really can’t help it! I know what I like - and, when I was doing the ‘Departure’ album, I was very much into dance music and so I wanted to do records like that. And the fact is, I did do them BEFORE Flo Rida and all those guys like Jay Sean and Craig David started doing dance-sounding songs! So probably what’ll happen, after I release this NEW album, is that they’ll all start doing ROCKY-sounding songs! But, you know, I am quite a diverse artist and so, as a producer, I always wanna put those different elements in there. I always wanna push the envelope and move stuff forward. And, with the first album being as diverse as it was, I feel this new album will be equally as diverse, but in a different way.”
Why he feels contemporary R&B has moved in that uptempo dance direction
“I think it’s actually just because the LEADERS went that way. Obviously Timbaland had big success doing uptempo tracks with people like Justin Timberland and Nelly Furtado; then I guess Polow Da Don started doing tracks like ‘Forever’ for Chris Brown... You know, these were all really successful records - and I think the nature of R&B and hip hop is that they all become the same really quickly. It’s like, when something is working, everyone kinda JUMPS on it. Like when The Neptunes were big, everyone had tracks from The Neptunes; when P.Diddy was big, everything became all about that P.Diddy sampled sound; then there was a moment when everyone was following Kanye West and wanted that whole sped-up Motown-sample vibe... So yeah, I really do think it’s just down to that ‘follow-the-leader’ element that the more poppy R&B records are now moving in that dance direction. Whereas with me, while I do have a couple of songs that are in that vein, with my new album I have moved on a bit to those kinda stadium-sounding songs with really big, catchy choruses that people can really get into.”
Taio’s ongoing songwriting/production work in both the US and UK
“Well, as you know, I co-produced the song ‘She Knows It’ for R. Kelly. But, because it got leaked and put out there before it should have, I don’t know whether it’ll now be going on his new album. I’ve also done some new tracks for Usher; I’ve submitted a track to Katy Perry... Though, to be honest, most of the stuff I’ve done recently has been for the UK. You know, I’ve been doing stuff for JLS, Cheryl Cole, Alexandra Burke... In fact, I’ve been so busy finishing off my album and writing and producing for other artists here in the UK that just last week I had a conversation with my manager where I was like ‘We’ve gotta get back out into America’... You know, I really don’t wanna lose that American connection and so I do feel I need to go back out there again soon to do some more work.”
Why Taio feels the collaboration between him and grime MC Tinchy Stryder (which has produced two Top Three singles) works so well in the UK
“Tinchy Stryder comes with very melodic-sounding verses; I write catchy pop choruses - and I think the combination of those two things WORKS over here. Whereas if Tinchy was just doing what a lot of grime artists do - which is write over tracks that don’t have much melody, and rhyme about topics that don’t really appeal to a mass audience - then it WOULDN’T. You know, he writes songs generally about love and relationships - ‘Take Me Back’, ‘Never Leave You’ - that a lot people can identify with. Unlike a lot of grime MCs, who talk about street hustle and stuff that a lotta people DON’T know about. So I think the combination of that with me bringing that pop/dance feel does fit well into the UK market. Which, as I’ve said in many interviews before, is very rock, pop and dance-based. You know, if you do good rock music, pop music or dance music, you will do well here. And I think the success of me with Tinchy Stryder does prove that point. Because, though Tinchy is labelled a quote-unquote ‘grime artist’ and I’m labelled a quote-unquote ‘R&B artist’, to be fair in reality we’re actually both just POP music artists!”
How he feels about the current UK soul music explosion pioneered by primarily-white female artists like Amy Winehouse and Duffy
“Well, to be fair, it’s not the first time this kinda thing has happened. As Eminem has put it, he’s not the first person to use black music to get himself wealthy! It’s an idea that’s worked for a LONG time, and it’s probably not gonna STOP working! Elvis did it; Justin Timberlake does it; Duffy and Winehouse do it... And, while I don’t really like to make that point - because it just comes across as being a little racist - by having two eyes and paying attention to what happens, I see it as just the way it IS! Though, having said that, I would also like to think that, if a black girl of comparable talent came out singing the same style of music, she would do just as well... But yeah, it is a proven formula that, if you get a white girl - or a white guy - who can sing in that black, soulful style and you can do the music to fit with it, then those artists do sell by the bucketload! So Timberlake does amazingly, Winehouse does amazingly... As I say, it’s definitely a formula that works!”
Taio’s plans for the immediate future
“Music-wise, obviously my main thrust right now is around the single and putting out the new album. Then fashion-wise I’ve also been working really, really hard on the whole Rokstarr brand, and the sunglasses are actually launching in about three weeks. You know, I’ve done masses of PR on them, and there’s a load of celebrities that are all rocking them already - Kid Cudi, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West… Then in the UK we have The Saturdays, JLS, Daniel Merriweather - who’ve all been twittering and writing on their blogs how much they love them. So yeah, it’s definitely my album and the fashion brand that are my two main focuses at the moment.”
Taio performs at Koko, London on October 20. Tickets available at www.gigsandtours.com
The single ‘Break Your Heart’ is out now. The album ‘Rokstarr’ follows October 12, both through Island Records Group
Words PETE LEWIS