"We felt that [our music] was so unique that it could actually backfire on us," recalls Anthony "Romeo" Santos of formulating a modern bachata sound as part of NYC's Aventura. From the early Nineties through the group's 2011 breakup, Santos & Co. gave the once-rural, century-old Dominican genre a modern makeover, adding infectious hip-hop beats, crystalline R&B vocals and plenty of big-city swag to the style's signature slinky bongos and twinkling guitars. "We already had the perception from people that we weren't real bachateros. It was a bit scary because if you don't function in Dominican Republic with a bachata project, then most likely you won't function anywhere," says the Bronx-born Dominican–Puerto Rican singer.
That formula, however, proved to be wildly successful: The self-styled King of Bachata, who went solo in 2011, would turn the tropical style into a multimillion dollar empire. In 2014 he broke records as the first Latin artist in history to both headline and sell out Yankee Stadium for two consecutive nights. That same year Formula, Vol. 2 was certified 11 times platinum; one of the album's singles, "Propuesta Indecente," a tango-tinged song about a salacious encounter, currently holds over a billion YouTube views. Last year, Jay-Z enlisted Santos as the CEO of Roc Nation Latin.
The momentum continues with his follow-up Golden which dropped Friday – an 18-track Spanglish album that sees the crooner exploring electro-pop, bossa nova, vintage rock, reggaetón and jíbaro (a requinto-driven folk style from Puerto Rico), while remaining firmly planted in bachata. Santos' single "Imitadora" dethroned Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" (the most streamed song of all time) on the Billboard Latin Airplay charts, and its accompanying video has already racked up nearly 25 million YouTube views in just a week. On Thursday, via a partnership with the nonprofit Notes for Notes, he became the first Latin star to light up the Empire State building. The iconic New York edifice beamed gold to match with the concept of Golden while displaying a light show to his latest single "Carmín."
Rolling Stone caught up with Romeo Santos at the 40/40 Club in New York where he walked us through the new record before its release. He held forth on numerous topics, from how he globalized a countryside genre to South America's infatuation for Romeo Santos portrait tattoos, and how he keeps reinventing his own bachata formula.
Madame Tussauds unveiled their Romeo Santos wax figure on Wednesday. What was your reaction when you first saw it?
They allow artists to have input in terms of what you can tweak here and change there, and it's been two good months that we've been doing that. The last images that I received, I was a bit concerned – to be super transparent with you – because I felt like it didn't really look like me. But then, I was like, "You know what? Let me not be a pain in the ass. Let's just move forward. It looks enough like me." And when I saw it in person, I was like, "Whoa!" I did not expect that to look like [me]. You definitely cannot appreciate it in pics. In person, it's a whole different dynamic.
Would you say Golden stands alone from the Formula Vol. 1 and 2 series?
I wanted to give [Formula] a rest. I didn't want to compare or relate it to a franchise. I felt the responsibility of doing an album that's a continuation of the same concept and format, that people would expect certain things. I also want to grow as an artist and reinvent myself. If you listen to Formula. Vol. 1 and 2 – not to take anything away from those albums; obviously the success speaks for itself – you can tell that it's a continuation. [Golden] has things I've never done before, and you never know, there might be a Golden, Vol. 2 at some point. I just felt like the album sounds a lot more refreshed. It has its own essence so it deserves its own title.
In the "Imitadora" video, the viewer sees you acting as an FBI agent. Is that an approach we'll be seeing more of from you?
I've always loved acting, and I do respect the craft. I don't want to be that guy que se inclina [that leans to it] because of my status as a musician. It takes a lot of practice and discipline, just like I've done it in the music business. If I don't have anything going on with music, then I would like to do that, but right now I'm so focused on todo lo que hago musical [everything that I do musically]. I'll tell you a story, at one point I was going to do a project in acting with Will and Jada [Pinkett Smith], which I know hit the media. And when I heard six or seven months, I was like, "Oh, my God, I would love to, but I got fans to feed." I didn't know how much of my time and work was needed. I did say that I would do it, but that it wasn't the moment.
Do you feel like Anthony Santos – you, when not in performance – has become one entity with Romeo Santos, the bachata king and master seducer, or do you keep that character separate from your private life?
Absolutely. There are certain things about Anthony where I can see Romeo in there, but not that much. I don't want to talk about myself like I'm a different person, but that's [the nature of] the question. I'll give you an example: ... I've created this character Romeo that shows a lot of confidence onstage, the seductive [side]. But when I come offstage, I've noticed how I'm nothing like Romeo. Let's just say if girls are complimenting me or coming on to me, I'm flattered but I wouldn't react the [same] way I would on stage. They throw me bras onstage and I may say the smoothest line, but I'm very shy in person, and I'm very conservative. ... In certain ways, [Romeo] could look arrogant but I think that's the character that people enjoy to see.
Being of Dominican–Puerto Rican descent, how was it navigating your multicultural experience growing up in New York?
It was great. I come from the Bronx, so I was exposed to every type of music you can think of. I go downstairs, and in one corner they're rocking salsa, and on another corner it's hip-hop. La vecina baja la ventana [the neighbor opens her window] and you hear merengue. When I started making music, I incorporated these sounds and elements. It was organic – I wasn't like, "Let me try to be down." At first it was a little bit overwhelming for traditional bachata fans because they weren't hearing any bachatero singing in Spanglish prior to Aventura. I'm glad that I have this background, and that I was born in the Bronx, because it gave me a unique sound.
"Girls throw me bras onstage and I may say the smoothest line, but I'm very shy in person."
Your music, even prior to your solo career, helped modernize bachata by giving it a hip-hop and R&B spin. Did you think from the get-go that this would be a winning formula?
I can tell you that Lenny [Santos of Aventura] and myself were pretty much the ones that created most of the music. ... But again, we were just having fun. At that moment we weren't really overthinking it. We probably took ourselves more seriously as we started functioning more and more – when we got to the point when we started realizing that we had a responsibility. This is some serious shit and we got to continue to feed people good music and reinvent ourselves. It was a challenge. ... We were fortunate to really [have an] impact in D.R. and in many other countries. It just became a virus.
You've been one of the few successful Latin musicians to not have to assimilate to the American market, but instead, you've had the U.S. mainstream cross over to you. Usher, Nicki Minaj, and Drake have all sang bachata songs alongside you.
That's part of the reason why I was super excited for the success of "Despacito." I'm not talking about the level of success, but a phenomenon like that probably happens every 50 years or so. I'm talking about the concept of bringing an artist like Justin Beiber into the Latin [market]. That's what I've been doing, even with Aventura, [like collaborating] with Akon and Wyclef. When I went on as a solo artist, I continued that but took it to another level with Usher and Drake.
There's a misconception in my opinion – but I think that it's fading away because of the success of "Despacito," which I'm so glad – and it's that we Latinos have to go do an American album, an English album, an Anglo production to cross over. I sold out two Yankee stadiums and all of my hits are in Spanish, and they're bachata. That's a sign that you don't have to do that, [assimilate]. The Number One song in the world is a reggaetón called "Despacito" and that's beautiful.
Your lyrics can sometimes be racy, but the music is delivered with sophistication. How do you balance those two elements?
That's a great question because it allows me to explain why I do certain things. I feel like as a songwriter, as I was saying earlier, I have a responsibility to feed my fans certain types of songs – but I know that not all fanáticos tienen edad [fans are of age]; they variate. Around 2014, I noticed that kids from five or seven [years old] were singing "Propuesta Indecente"! And I'm pretty sure they didn't know what the theme is about. So I start thinking: "Imagine if I do something to cater to those fans," and that's how I created "Héroe Favorito," [Golden's first single], which is a song where a lot of people were like, "Yo, but that's not Romeo's style."
I feel like as an artist and a songwriter, I have to reach certain audiences and give people a little bit of everything. You listen to my production and there's not another "Héroe Favorito" because that was [made] especially for the kids. I obviously also wanted adults to appreciate it. You have to try to darle un poquito de todo [give a little bit of everything]. I like my music to be like a buffet. If you don't like this plate, there's another one for you.
People consider you the Jay-Z of Latin music. What do you think of that comparison?
That's an honor. I look up to Jay, and he's exactly what anyone wants to be. He's not only an amazing MC but also a mogul. Everything he touches se convierte en oro [turns to gold]. It's just an honor to be in the same room with this man. ... I'm not only here guiding [as the CEO of Roc Nation Latin], but I'm also learning. Recently I had the opportunity to be in a studio session with him, and I listened to his album [Magna Carta ... Holy Grail] before it hit the market. I don't know what I was enjoying more, the actual album – because it's amazing – or the experience of him speaking to other people highly about me. Those are moments that I value and will worship for the rest of my life.
I can honestly say that I have worked and collaborated with absolutely everyone [I admire]. The one that I would've loved to and is no longer with us is Michael Jackson. I would've also loved to do a bachata with Selena. That would've been insane.
Of all of your experiences onstage, what's one that stood out as the most unforgettable or outrageous?
Starting with Aventura, we suddenly reached a huge level of success, and I don't take that for granted. But the first time I experienced something shocking where I asked myself, "What's going on?" but in a good way, was in Argentina. I used to tour there a lot and the fan base are very emotional about showing you love. When you play certain venues in the U.S., even though the dudes love you, they'd probably say, "My girl loves you." Out there it's not like that, and a lot of male fans aren't shy to show how much they love you, [even if] they're there with their girlfriends. So I've seen something that blew my mind, like "Whoa!" This guy – and mind you, it started with one – we made eye contact, and he shows me his chest while I was performing. [It was] my face! I'm like, "What?!" Then like 10 minutes later, I see another guy with an arm tattoo that says, "The King Stays King."
I know people that love me, that would probably take a bullet for me, but they ain't tattooing my face on no parts of their body. If you show that type of appreciation for me, it's special. A similar thing [happened] in Chile. That probably was by far one of the things that blew my mind. It was pretty impressive. I still can't believe it.