Romeo Santos steers his massive white Range Rover down West 38th Street in Manhattan and cranks up the volume on his new album. He’s a few blocks north of Madison Square Garden, which he has sold out four times during his solo career, as well as the Empire State Building, which will synchronize its tower lights to his new single, “Carmín,” on July 20, the eve of the release of his new album, Golden. A few miles uptown is the Bronx home on Vyse Avenue where Santos grew up in the 1980s and helped form the best-selling bachata quartet Aventura; a couple of avenues over is the West Side Highway, where he goes running four times a week.
Shy and soft-spoken since he was a child, Santos — who turned 36 on the day of Golden’s arrival — is full of swagger as his vehicle rumbles across the city that defines him. Opening track “Golden Intro” blasts through the speakers, and Santos sings along with the lyrics about his “Midas touch,” his status as “the king” and how his critics have foolishly counted him out on more than one occasion.
“You have to be confident about the product you’re putting out,” says Santos, looking younger than his years in gray jeans and a striped tank top. “It’s just like when a boxer is promoting a fight. You can’t go out there and be like, ‘This guy might beat me.’ ”
Why is Santos, one of Latin music’s most bankable superstars, feeling like he has something to prove? It has been only three years since he released Formula, Vol. 2, the top-selling Latin album of 2014 (according to Nielsen Music), which included the smash “Propuesta Indecente,” the all-time biggest song in the 30-year history of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart as of 2016. Yet in the time since, reggaetón and trap summarily have taken over the Latin charts and achieved unprecedented crossover success. Pop A-listers like Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias have embraced the reggaetón beat, while Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” has become a defining song of 2017 (the Justin Bieber-featuring remix spends its 11th week atop the Aug. 5 Billboard Hot 100). Bachata, the traditional music of the Dominican Republic that Santos made a global sensation with an R&B-laced iteration — first as leader of Aventura, then as a soloist beginning in 2011 — has taken a backseat.
Santos says he’s not concerned that his signature sound is currently out of vogue. After all, when “Despacito” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in May, Santos wrote on his social platforms, “All Latin artists should be proud of this achievement.” And Goldendoes indeed feature a collaboration with Yankee and Nicky Jam titled “Bella y Sensual” (“Beautiful and Sensual”) that approaches mainstream trap without betraying Santos’ voice.
“It’s like déjà vu, to be honest with you,” he says with a laugh. “When Aventura began, there was a lot of salsa and merengue, and we said, ‘Let’s just do what we do.’ Then Aventura blew up, but urban was in its prime. This is normal. If you put out quality music, you’re always going to be in a good place.”
While Santos the musician says that he’s thriving, it’s difficult to determine whether Santos the person is in a good place, since he’s fiercely protective of his private life. He has never discussed the details of his romantic life in interviews or on social media, and when he posts on Instagram, it’s almost always about the music he’s working on. Santos says he spends most of his free time in the recording studio tinkering with new ideas, and that has only increased since he became CEO of Roc Nation Latin in 2016, which has allowed him to serve as an adviser to such artists as Dominican singer Mozart La Para and American Idol alumna Karen Rodriguez.
“Last night, I had a meeting with Karen, and we worked on a song,” says Santos. “I signed a group of artists that have a good concept of what they should be doing. All I do is coach.” Santos’ longtime manager, Johnny Marines, serves as Roc Nation Latin president, and has pushed him to make investments beyond music; Santos won’t divulge specifics, but he hints at making some long-term investments when his current album cycle ends. Meanwhile, Roc Nation founder JAY-Z has become a friend and mentor to Santos — he suggested collaborating with Swizz Beatz for Golden, and Santos reached out to the producer for the album standout “Premio.”
“I literally had a conversation with him last night,” says Santos of JAY-Z. “I’ve been blessed to have made a good income, but I put so much energy into music that I never really concentrated on other ways of making money. That’s where Roc Nation has helped me tremendously, and … a lot of that comes from Jay’s business mentality.”
Santos is not ready to consider a future where recording is not the focal point of his career, and one listen to Golden demonstrates that the Latin superstar is still making vital, exploratory music. “Leaders don’t follow formulas — they create them,” says Sony Music Latin chairman/CEO Afo Verde. “Romeo writes and records what he feels, regardless of what happens on the charts.” A two-part song suite, “El Papel” (“The Paper”) describes an affair from the perspective of a female lover and a conflicted husband, respectively. “El Amigo,” featuring Julio Iglesias, pairs Santos with one of his idols, while the single “Imitadora” (“Imitator”) has been the album’s biggest commercial triumph, elbowing “Despacito” out of the top spot of the Latin Airplay chart dated July 29.
As Santos reaches for a sandwich and a green apple that are stashed in a bag on the backseat of his car (“I need to eat every three hours — it keeps my metabolism going so I stay at a certain weight,” he explains), the final track on Golden, a combative rant titled “Sin Filtro” (“No Filter”), plays over the stereo. The song tackles seemingly every piece of criticism that has ever been leveled at Santos. He once again dismisses questions about his sexuality, brought on by his intense privacy.
Santos says that total honesty is the backbone of his music. “I’m sure people are going to listen to that outro and they’re going to say, ‘Why is he talking again about people who say he’s gay?’ ” he says. “I know some people may say, ‘Well, just ignore it.’ But then there are moments where I hear a beat, and I get inspired.
“And then,” he adds, addressing his haters, “I find a creative way of telling you to go fuck yourself.”
Romeo Santos says that he probably knows Julio Iglesias’ catalog better than the man himself, and hadn’t worked with the Spanish icon until writing Golden’s “El Amigo” as a duet. “I sent him the demo, and he loved it,” says Santos, who flew to Marbella, Spain, to record vocals with Iglesias.
The two stars traded off verses about the “friend” in the song; at first glance, the lyrics refer to a cherished companion. “Four days later, I’m mixing the vocals, and I get a call from Julio,” recalls Santos. “‘Romeo, I have a question: Did you write a song about a dick?’”
It turns out the ode to “un compinche en mis deseos” (“a buddy in my desires)” was actually a salute to a man’s nether region. Iglesias didn’t mind. “The song is genius,” says the 73-year-old. “And it’s not easy to write a double-entendre song, set it to music and have people actually like it.”
This article originally appeared on Billboard.