How was your New Year’s Eve? Did anyone put on Taio Cruz’s Dynamite at the party? “We gon’ rock this club/We gon’ go all night/We gon’ light it up/Like it’s dynamite!” the London singer-songwriter proposed on his none-too-subtle 2010 single, an electropop banger that shot to number one here and number two in the US. Less than a year before that, he was number one on both sides of the Atlantic with the similarly bombastic Break Your Heart.
Back then, the biggest pop star in the world was the newly emergent Lady Gaga, and a plucky young redhead named Ed Sheeran had yet to release his first proper single. In other words, in pop terms, a million years ago. Cruz walked the walk as a pop god, “wearing all my favourite brands brands brands brands,” as he put it in Dynamite, and sharing song space with international stars such as David Guetta, Flo Rida and Ludacris. His hits bought him a house in Beverly Hills across the road from Calvin Harris and down the street from Robbie Williams. But it’s a long time since he was steering a speedboat and having his motorbike serviced by barely dressed lady mechanics in his videos. With a new single coming out in a completely different pop landscape, can he repeat the trick?
“I suppose it is more difficult to engineer a number one,” he admits of a chart that now counts mostly in streams rather than downloads. “You need to have more pop cultural relevance, in the sense that it’s not just your music that makes you big. It’s a lot of social media, a lot of viral things, influencers. It’s not just the song, it’s who else is listening to the song.”
The new single, Row the Body, features US rapper French Montana, as does almost every song within a 10-mile radius right now. It’s a slinkier beast than Cruz’s past work, with a slower pace, a picked guitar line and a touch of flute. Its subject matter is nothing more complex than wanting to dance up close with a girl. It first appeared on streaming services in November and hasn’t yet hit the top 40, but has had around five million Spotify streams. Is that enough for him?
“It is more about cultural impact now rather than necessarily charting in the way that it happened before,” he tells me. “But whenever I write anything I want it to be the best, and the best is number one.”
When the 32-year-old first started making hits – winning a Best Single Brit Award for co-writing Will Young’s Your Game in 2005, and first entering the charts himself a year later with a smooth ballad, I Just Wanna Know – his biggest problem was his songs being unavailable to buy until about six weeks after they were first played on the radio, and the loss of sales in the meantime to illegal downloads. Today it’s about being heard at all amid the cacophony of stars Insta-tweet-snap-book-ing. People are less inclined to seek out your music when everything is already coming at them in a deluge.
He’s put a lot more energy than most into finding an effective way to operate in this new world, however. That’s where he’s been for the past few years: developing his own app. It’s called Kewe (pronounced like the fruit) because, as he puts it, “It’s the key to the we.”
“Right now you can share your life on Instagram and Snapchat and your music on Spotify and Soundcloud, but there is no one place you can share both,” he says. “I want one app where I can post what I’m doing every day and have people follow me for evolving content, and then I can drop a single and monetise it straight away.”
I suspect he may have invented MySpace but I join anyway. The smart-looking app automatically follows Cruz for you, which gives him close to 30,000 followers – rather less than his 10 million Facebook fans and 2.2 million Twitter followers, but he says he hasn’t started pushing it to his fellow musicians yet so there’s lots of room for growth.
Despite being the face of it, he’s not a natural for all the extra me-me-me stuff of social pop stardom. “I’m not that narcissistic. I don’t like filming myself. I’ve had people tell me that I need to start doing it because that’s what people do, but I don’t have a natural inclination to do it,” he tells me. “I like the creative aspects really. Starting from scratch, making something out of nothing. I’ve never been a spotlight kind of person.”
I ask what he’d put down as his job description nowadays. “CEO I suppose,” he replies. “I have a bunch of employees. I guess the corporate side of things is intriguing to me. It’s cool and interesting because it’s about trying to be a good boss, trying to inspire your team and make everyone feel happy and creative.”
At the start of the decade he was also selling sunglasses under the Rokstarr brand and watches as RXTR, but that’s on the back burner now. I ask if the watch on his wrist is one of his. “No, it’s a Rolex!” So Kewe isn’t his first step into a multi-strand career. “It’s difficult for people to understand that when you’re successful at something, you want to do something other than what you’re successful at,” he says. “Not that I don’t enjoy making music and writing songs. I actually do love that. But it’s the challenge of learning something new.”
Pretty shy for a pop star, keeping his coat and scarf on in his record company offices, quiet and well spoken thanks to prep school in Rugby and boarding school in West Sussex, it does sound like he’d rather be on a swivel chair behind a big desk than centre stage. But he’s written some great new songs, he says, and wants to share them. There are more singles and an album, which will be his fourth, on the way. The writing is the part he enjoys the most, his great strength. He’s got a natural ear for mass appeal, which is why he doesn’t care if his biggest hits already sound a bit dated. “I like to make music that is of the moment. To me they are classic 2010 records.” He thinks afrobeat-influenced sounds are going to dominate for another year or so, but is already tired of American trap music.
He likens writing a good pop song to being a minimal designer: “It’s knowing everything so that you know what to leave out. You filter it down to appeal to the greatest number of people.” He has said before that a catchy melody in a song is like a good-looking person: you’re attracted to the tune before you care about the lyrics/personality. “People will go around humming a song but they don’t know the words. They’re drawn to the superficial part first.”
Now he’s putting that expertise to use again, and more hits are surely on the way. Pop’s CEO is back in business.
Row the Body (feat. French Montana) is out now on 2TE/Warner Bros