Prince Royce -- aka Geoffrey Royce Rojas -- is 22 going on 23, but his smooth baby face makes him look younger, giving him a naive appearance that belies the savvy with which he conducts himself. At Miami's Hit Factory recording studios, fresh from performing at the Vina del Mar festival in Chile, he lounges in a swivel chair, wearing one of his trademark Fedora hats, Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt, looking very much in control.
Now, all eyes are on the soulful singer, as he prepares the release of his sophomore set, Phase II, due April 10 on Top Stop, with distribution by Atlantic. It's the follow-up to his self-titled debut-the top-selling Latin album of 2011 with 186,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It has now sold 300,000.
Top Stop, an indie Latin label founded by producer Sergio George and businessman George Elias, released Royce's debut in the fall of 2010. In slightly more than a year, Royce won best new artist at the 2011 Billboard Latin Music Awards; signed a joint-venture deal with Atlantic, which will release his English-language album later this year; signed with William Morris Endeavor and toured with Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull; and, most recently, signed a management deal with David Sonenberg of DAS Communications, whose acts have included the Black Eyed Peas and Meat Loaf.
His remarkable early success has now been joined to a solid infrastructure anchored in both the Latin and mainstream worlds. Can Phase II build on his accomplishments?
"Las Cosas Pequeñas"
Despite its English name, the album features mostly Spanish-language bachata tracks, laced with tropical beats and R&B vocals. First single "Las Cosas Pequeñas" has already reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart. Though George wrote most of the album's music, Royce wrote the majority of the lyrics-including "Dulce," a tale of a pregnant teen that he recorded in bachata and acoustic versions, the latter featuring pianist Arthur Hanlon.
The album also features "My Time," an uptempo bilingual song that Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez asked Royce to record, and which is used as the ballplayer's theme when he walks to the plate. "It feels good to know that not only 15-year-old girls are into my music," Royce says. "Even athletes are into it."
Born and raised in the Bronx to Dominican parents, Royce grew up shuttling between New York and the Dominican Republic, familiarized with the island's traditional bachata. By the time he was 14 and began dabbling in music, Aventura-also from the Bronx-was a rising star, and Royce began to see the possibilities of recording in that style. He started to record demos and sing in contests, and was eventually signed by manager/producer Andres Hidalgo, who had also worked with bachata duo Xtreme. Hidalgo had shopped Royce around with little luck when George, seeking new talent, visited a bachata chat room called LaFragancia.com.
"His name kept coming up," says George, who signed Royce not only because of his voice, but "because he had a lot of girls and he was cool. I also figured it wouldn't cost much, and I had nothing to lose."
Like Aventura, Royce appeals to a bilingual, acculturated Latino audience. But unlike Aventura, which developed during an entire decade, he broke almost immediately with his second single, a bilingual cover of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me."
This time around, "Las Cosas Pequeñas" is a sweet, poppy, catchy bachata. But if one listens to Phase II in its entirety, the album is more adventuresome. It kicks off with an introductory poem chanted over Afro-Cuban drums, courtesy of performance artist La Bruja, then segues into "Incondicional," a track that begins with strumming guitars and Mexican trumpets.
The eclecticism of Royce's music points to his possibilities beyond bachata, much as has been the case with Aventura frontman Romeo Santos, who last year launched a solo career and is currently on his first solo arena tour.
Last year, Atlantic signed Royce for his English-language recordings in partnership with Top Stop, with plans to release a first album by the fourth quarter. "His voice stood out," says Atlantic executive VP of A&R Mike Caren, who found Royce on Myspace. The clincher, he says, was meeting George, who believes crossing over is only possible when an artist already has a solid Latin fan base.
"As much as I love multigenres and merging things together, it's very important for every artist to understand their core," Caren says. While Royce's core may be Latin, the fact that his fans extend beyond it was evident on last year's Iglesias/Pitbull tour, on which he was an opening act.
Now, Royce is readying a tour of his own. He will play dates in Latin America from May through August, and launch a U.S. tour in September playing mostly 2,500- to 5,000-seat theaters. During release week, he'll make appearances at FYE locations in the Bronx (April 10), Chicago (April 11) and Fullerton, Calif. (April 13).
Asked if he feels responsible for expanding Royce's touring market, Iglesias replies, "No . . . He was hot. He was selling like crazy. People love him, the audience loves him. I would see it every night. I would see the crowd react, and every single person in the arena loved Prince Royce."