In 2002, when he was 13 years old, Geoffrey Rojas decided he wanted to be a singer. It took him six years to develop a sound, a look and an identity, to turn himself into Prince Royce. It took him another two years to top the charts, and one more to release the top-selling Latin album of 2011, Prince Royce. He stands now as the most successful breakout Latin act in recent years, though his greatest accomplishments may lie just ahead.
Royce is that rarest of commodities: a Latin crossover star in the making, and-armed with a new manager who's helped guide the Black Eyed Peas, a new major-label deal that will see him releasing albums in both Spanish and English, and one of the most powerful brand partners in music retail-one with a real chance of realizing his crossover dreams.
"From day one that was the plan," Royce says, "to cross over. All my albums have had English songs and Spanglish in them. It was just a matter of when and where and how. You can't really plan a crossover. But for me at least, it was always in the works."
Today, Royce releases his third studio album, "Soy el Mismo (I'm the Same)," on Sony Music Latin, marking his major-label debut after two sets with Top Stop Records. The album -- which he breaks down in the below video -- is part of a two-pronged deal with Sony where Royce will release his Spanish-language albums through Sony Music Latin and his English-language albums through RCA. His first RCA set-already in the works-is due in the fall of 2014.
Born and raised in New York by Dominican parents, Royce spoke English as his first language, but he identified closely with his Latin roots. Inspired by fellow New York act Aventura, he sang bachata, but he gave it a more romantic, pop-laced twist that complemented his baby-face and sweet, R&B-tinged voice.
Equipped with a full-length album, Royce knocked on the door of every Latin label, and was turned down each time, until Miami-based indie Top Stop saw the possibilities of a young, bilingual bachata act.
Lounging on a couch at the Hit Factory in Miami, Royce is all pouty smiles and charm. Despite his bad-boy outfit-black T-shirt, black hooded leather jacket, black jeans and black high-top shoes-he exudes a boy-next-door geniality. But when he speaks, he has the authority of a man in charge of his business.
When Royce shopped that first demo, he was young and green. He signed away multiple rights, including his publishing at the time, which he gave to Top Stop as part of his 360 deal.
In turn, Top Stop took Royce to the top of the charts. His first single, a cover of "Stand by Me," peaked at No. 8 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart in 2010. It preceded three No. 1s, including "Corazon Sin Cara," a self-penned single that was on his original demo. Eventually, Royce's self-titled debut would sell 357,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the top-selling Latin album of 2011.
"I learned from whatever happened, and I made thoughtful decisions," Royce says of his early deals. "I didn't rush into things. Everything was done with a strategy."
Royce's actions bear that out. By the time he was recording his second album, he'd built up enough steam that conversations were taking place for him to record in English with Atlantic. At that point, Royce decided he needed a management team to take the reins of an increasingly galloping career.
Enter David Sonenberg, who with partner William Derella in DAS Communications has managed the careers of the Black Eyed Peas, LMFAO and others.
"Fergie's lawyer called me about a year ago and asked me if I was interested in getting involved with a Latin artist," Sonenberg says. "I spoke high school Spanish, and I wasn't sure. I went online and saw his version of 'Stand by Me,' and I took a meeting and I was charmed. And I was very impressed with his songwriting."
Royce released Phase II on Top Stop and subsequently sued to get out of his contract. The two parties eventually settled, and earlier this year, he and Sonenberg started shopping for a new deal that contemplated his crossover ambitions.
The pact with Sony Music Latin and RCA is mimicked by his publishing deal with peermusic, which last month signed him jointly to its Latin and pop departments, the first time the publisher has made such an arrangement.
"This means both departments will be working Royce's catalog," says Julio Bague, peermusic executive for Miami and Puerto Rico. "There was a lot of focus on the crossover aspect, so it was important for the pop and Latin departments to do this together."
The fact that Royce is staging his crossover move primarily with his U.S.-influenced brand of bachata also highlights the changing face and clout of U.S.-born Hispanics who no longer look only abroad for their music stars. It's a fact that is increasingly getting notice.
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In the past several years, Royce has been the face for multiple brands, including Dodge, Verizon and Post Honey Bunches of Oats, and his management is in the process of negotiating several branding and sponsorship deals in tandem with the album's release. Already, Soy el Mismo will be bolstered by a major campaign with Target that includes an exclusive deluxe version of the album with three bonus songs, plus a TV ad campaign that launched this week on both English- and Spanish-speaking broadcast networks, including Telemundo, MTV Tr3s and mun2.
Although Target has had previous partnerships with Latin acts, the Royce campaign is custom-made, much like what the retailer has done for Justin Timberlake, P!nk and Taylor Swift.
Target announced the partnership during Labor Day weekend, when it presented a surprise performance by Royce at the People en EspaÃ±ol festival at the Alamodome in San Antonio. During the performance Target captured footage for its TV spot.
"Whether you love bachata, R&B or pop music, Prince Royce's new album has something for everyone," says Anne Stanchfield, divisional merchandise manager of entertainment for Target.
Indeed, regardless of the artist's crossover potential, or even bachata's strength right now, what Royce also has going for him is being Prince Royce.
"Even if he only spoke Spanish people would still be very interested in him," Sonenberg says. "There are very few young artists that have broken through in the Latin marketplace in the last five, six years. So he stands out in that regard. He broke out when he was 20, 21 years old and that is a very rare occurrence. And he sounds great on record."
"Everyone is looking for the next international Latin superstar, but that's easier said than done," Sony Music U.S. Latin managing director Nir Seroussi says. "In Royce's case, he has the hardest part done: He has the young U.S. Latin audience, which is the hardest audience to convince. Now, the next step is countries like Mexico and Argentina, where he's already strong. But everybody is chasing that same dream."
To realize that dream, Royce has crafted an album that bridges new and old facets of his sound. He calls Soy el Mismo "fuller, bigger," and with its rich instrumentation and arrangements it is indeed expansive. "The quality is bigger," says Royce, who co-wrote with a broad range of both Latin and mainstream writers, including Toby Gad (co-writer on Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry") and D'Lesly "Dice" Lora (who's worked with Royce since his debut album). "I wasn't blowing money, but I was doing what I needed to do to take it to the next level."
The first single, "Darte un Beso"-an upbeat, romantic bachata with hints of country-premiered on Univision's Premios Juventud telecast in July and debuted the following week at No. 2 on Hot Latin Songs. It stands at No. 2 on the chart after spending three weeks at No. 1.
The album runs from bachata tracks with decidedly pop touches ("Tu Principe," co-written with Daniel Santacruz, is a modern fairytale that uses flute and harp to enhance the fantasy) to Royce's first power ballad, the English-language "You Are Fire." "Already Missing You," is an uptempo pop-dance track featuring Selena Gomez.
But the initial marketing thrust is dedicated to Latin audiences.
Royce is releasing his set barely months after completing a stint as a coach on "La Voz Kids," the kiddie, Spanish-language version of "The Voice" that garnered record ratings for Telemundo. And in an effort to solidify his standing in other Latin markets, he's doing a stint as a guest coach on "The Voice Mexico," alongside reggaeton duo Wisin & Yandel, and his early promotion will be Latin-focused.
"I didn't want to get too English on this album, especially when there's an English album coming out," Royce says. "It's an album catered to the Latin community. When the English album comes out, it will be pop in English with a flair of Latin/tropical."
Sony is also working Royce as one big project, as opposed to separate albums. The plan, Seroussi says, is to "warm up" the English set in the second half of the promotional cycle. "The long-term plan is to consolidate him in the region with this album and lay the groundwork for the crossover into the American and world markets," he says. "So, at some point next year, we'll begin to promote to the mainstream."
"We knew it was a Latin album with a follow-up English album, so we had to prep everything around that," says Royce, who's been writing English songs. "I want to cater to both worlds. I don't want to be an English artist that blows up and forgets the Latin community. Even if I'm doing well in English, I want to give it that Latin flavor and represent where I'm from and where I started."