Picture this. One moment you’re jetting across the ocean in a high powered motorboat. A Ubisktiani supermodel by your side. The next, you perform to a crowd of tens of thousands at the London Olympics. You feel invincible, on top of the world. Then, the next moment, you are having a breakdown. You have just been booed off of TikTok. This, good reader, is the story of Taio Cruz.
Taio who? His fame may have been fleeting but for two years Taio Cruz was one of the biggest names in pop. While his greatest success arrived with party anthem ‘Dynamite‘, it was his hit single ‘Break Your Heart’ which landed Cruz #1 in the US charts on September 4, 2010.
Cruz was born in London in 1985. His father was Nigerian and his mother Brazilian. A gifted songwriter, he inked a music publishing deal at age 19. Three years later came his first notable success. Co-written for Pop Idol winner Will Young, single ‘Your Game‘ landed Cruz a #5 single in the British charts.
Following his first rush of success, Cruz founded his own record label Rokstarr. A year later he launched a solo career, taking the #3 spot in the UK charts with the self-produced ‘I Just Wanna Know‘. More singles, a debut album, and a major-label deal with Island Records followed.
How Did He Do It?
Success in the UK is no small matter. But as any ambitious pop star knows, it is the US, the largest English-speaking music market in the world, that matters most. Cruz is one of the few artists of his generation to cross the Atlantic Ocean and pull it off.
Taio Cruz was act of the radio era. In 2009 Streaming services like YouTube and Spotify had not yet challenged terrestrial radio’s vice-like grip on musical taste. This worked perfectly to Taio’s advantage.
The fact ‘Break Your Heart’ had quickly topped UK charts when it first debuted on September 20, 2009, was not lost upon his US record label. And neither did it slip past North American radio programmers. Cruz’s credentials as a chart-topper helped Cruz place a foot in DJs doors when ‘Break Your Heart’ was released in North American on February 2nd, 2010.
Once the song hit the US airwaves its popularity only grew. With further airplay, ‘Break Your Heart’ jumped from #53 to #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 on March 11, 2010. In doing so it made one of the biggest leaps in the chart’s history. (In fact, Cruz would break the record for the biggest weekly bump, topping the record previously held by Kelly Clarkson‘s American Idol victory lap ‘A Moment Like This‘ since 2002.)
Let’s Get Ludacris
While Cruz was unknown to US listeners, his label had a solution for this as well. His reworked US version of ‘Break Your Heart’ included a parachute performance from southern rapper Ludacris. The rapper may have been past his prime in terms of recording his own hits but he was nonetheless familiar to US listeners. Ludacris’ contribution during the song’s middle section may fall a little flat, but Cruz’ success speaks for itself.
Ever since Beatlemania sold the work of Black American artists and rock ‘n’ rollers back to the American teens in 1964, the ability of British bands to seduce US audiences has been well documented. Taio Cruz may not have been a familiar face but his music drew heavily from US influences. He had a smooth R&B voice.
Cruz had hooks evocative of popular contemporary acts Usher, Ne-yo, AKON. Yet his immersion in European club culture provided a new spin on a familiar sound. Cruz departed just enough from the pop standard to keep things fresh. With novelty, such an important driving factor in pop, Cruz had happened across a perfect formula.
Cruz understood pop. And to him, it was far from a dirty word. “People like Madonna, people like Michael Jackson,” he informed the Daily Comet in 2010, “that’s pop music, but it had soul, it had real musicianship to it… I just love pop music that takes influences from loads of different genres, and just focuses on the catchiest parts of that music.”
Nothin’ But a Heartache
Lyrically, Cruz reflected the party-hardy attitude of the times. ‘Dynamite‘, which accompanied ‘Break Your Heart’ on Cruz’ second album Rockstarr celebrated staying up and partying all night. ‘Break Your Heart’ dealt with another part of the party lifestyle: avoiding any kind of romantic entanglement which would slow it down.
The song’s theme was a pop staple. “It’s about breaking a girl’s heart,” Cruz once explained to Blues & Soul Magazine, “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,” he continued, “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‘.”
Cruz insisted he was no heartbreaker himself. He may have shattered one or two, but never intentionally. These humble proclamations were not reflected in the songs accompanying the music video, which featured supermodel Nadya Nepomnyashaya and a luxury speedboat.
Why Didn’t It Last?
Taio Cruz seemed to have such a firm grip on the pop format, so the question arises as to why he did not last. It may simply be the shallowness of the material – Cruz would admit in an interview with Digital Spy that he was not quite the player his song presented him to be. He was acting a role and making the songs that were less a reflection of himself than what he thought his audience wanted to hear.
Music is not just about having breakthrough success. It is also about sustaining it. If an artist’s aura of invulnerability evaporates, it is often difficult for them to get a second chance. Cruz’s story ran along these lines. As a pop act, he simply did not last.
While novelty helped grant Taio his unexpectedly huge US success, it served as a double-edged sword. Cruz’ third album Ty.O would repeat many of Rockstarr‘s methods. He revisited themes of heartbreak, cranked out party anthems, and loaded his material with guest appearances.
And yet there was no more dynamite. Ty.O and its accompanying singles failed to make as big an impact in the US. For the first time in his career, a Taio Cruz album would also fail to secure a #1 single in the UK. While Cruz performed better in Europe, his reputation as a pop star took such a blow he has yet to return for a fourth album.
First They Love You, Then They Hate You
Fame, playwright William Shakespeare said, is often won without real merit and lost without deserving having it taken away. When Cruz joined TikTok earlier this year to promote a new single he found himself greeted with an overwhelmingly negative response. So great was this vitriol that Cruz quickly deleted his account. He would later claim the avalanche of hurtful comments had left him with suicidal thoughts.
The music of Taio Cruz had been listened to by millions, tens of thousands had cheered him when he performed at the 2012 London Olympics. He was, for a time, YouTube’s most streamed UK artist of all-time. Yet by 2020 he was no longer a going concern.
As his pop career faded Taio continued to create material with other artists including. He would also become a supporter of musical charity organisation Little Kids Rock. Notoriously, he would make an ill-fated investment in failed social media platform KeWe. His single ‘2020’ was the latest in a series of one-off releases following Ty.O. None have made a significant impact.
Where Is He Now?
Cruz, now worth an estimated $10 million dollars, currently resides in Los Angeles. His latest music, he insisted in a recent interview with the BBC, was prompted by his manager’s insistence he put something out. The fact he was no longer famous? It didn’t bother him.
“We had a couple of big number one songs in the UK and a number one in America,” he reflected, misremembering his own history of chart success. “I feel happy that I achieved that. I don’t necessarily crave the rat race, where I feel like I need to constantly maintain that position.”
“If I’m not out there being famous,” Cruz maintained, “people perceive that as you fell off or something went wrong. But to each their own. I don’t feel that way.”
As Shakespeare said, fame is fleeting. Maybe the clue to this short-lived career had always been contained in Taio’s chart breaking lyrics. He was only going your break your heart.
‘Break Your Heart’ Peak Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1 (47 weeks on chart)
Australia/ARIA: #2 (26 weeks on chart)
UK/Official Charts: #1 (23 weeks on chart)
Taio Cruz 'Break Your Heart'5
'Dynamite' was better