×
Skip to main content

Why Romeo Santos Refuses to Take Off His ‘Superman Cape’ For Bachata

With his unwavering commitment to the genre, he has built a singular career in Latin music — and his business is still growing.

On a muggy Florida afternoon, a summer storm pelts the pristine white Rolls-Royce SUV that pulls up to an empty street corner just outside downtown Miami. The window rolls down, and an immediately recognizable voice, soft and sultry, calls from the driver’s seat: “Come on in,” he says, leaning over to push open the passenger door. I clamber into the front seat, mortified as water splatters on the red leather.

Explore

Explore

See latest videos, charts and news

See latest videos, charts and news

The car may be flashy, but the man inside looks much less so. Romeo Santos — the artist who took bachata global and became one of Latin music’s biggest stars — is wearing plaid pants, an oversize yellow T-shirt and a baseball cap. His only jewelry is his Rolex and a small gold chain. The car is empty except for his 22-year-old nephew, who doubles as his assistant and is sprawled across the back seat.

Related

Santos drove from his new home north of Miami all the way to my Key Biscayne neighborhood to play me music from his upcoming album, Formula, Vol. 3, his first since 2019’s Utopia and the first in his Formula series since 2014’s record-breaking Vol. 2, which is still on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart after 386 consecutive weeks — the most for any Latin album in history.

Notoriously secretive about his creative process and production, Santos has played Vol. 3 for only a handful of people. Other than the single “Sus Huellas” (Her Prints) — released, no coincidence, on Valentine’s Day — he intends to keep it away from outside ears until its Sept. 1 release, another symbolically charged date: It coincides with his eldest son’s birthday. (Santos, who is equally secretive about his personal life, also has two young children with his longtime partner.)

“This is what we’re going to do,” he informs me as he connects his phone to the car speakers. His SUV is his preferred listening studio. “I’ll play songs in groups of three, and you tell me, honestly, what you think of each one, in order of what you like best.”

Santos presses Play, and just like that, as the rain gently patters outside, I’m immersed in las palabras de Romeo, as Santos is fond of putting it at his concerts and on his recordings: a world of passion where sex is so urgent it happens with your clothes on, where women cheat as much as men, where love is clung to even in the face of insurmountable odds, where past transgressions are forgiven for the promise of redemption. After all, as he croons in his plaintive, high-pitched tenor on new track “Solo Conmigo” (Only With Me): “I can’t erase your story, nor who came before I did/The pillow may have witnessed so much sex on your mattress, but true love? Only with me.”

Romeo Santos
Romeo Santos photographed on July 8, 2022 at The Panorama Room at the Graduate Roosevelt Island in New York. Dolce & Gabbana shirt, Glamour Hippy sunglasses. Grace Rivera

Santos is the first to admit that spoken words don’t come easily to him, his Bronx cadence and slang etched into his vocabulary as he searches in Spanish and English for the right terms. But when he writes songs, it’s another thing entirely: an overflowing cornucopia of vocabulary, woven into a tale that unfolds like a novel and that fans memorize with ferocity and precision.

Vol. 3 has Santos’ intricate lyrics in spades, along with the unexpected collaborations — here, with Rosalía and Justin Timberlake — that have become the backbone of the album series. (The previous two entries included linkups with Santana, Usher, Nicki Minaj and Drake.)

What’s noticeably absent is any semblance of urban music — be it reggaetón, trap or rap — or even any urbano artists. This is unapologetically an album of bachata, the traditional, guitar-based Dominican heartbreak music that Santos made cool with his attitude, contemporary arrangements and star presence.

“If I do an urban song, it could be massive. I don’t want it to be a distraction,” he says without conceit. “You have these amazing artists who right now are in their prime offering urban music. I wanted to make a difference and speak for my genre. Bachata needs me. I needed to put on my Superman cape for my culture.”

At 41 years old, the artist born Anthony Santos has worn that cape for a steady two decades. As “Romeo” — the sexier alter ego he first adopted as lead singer of boy band Aventura — he revolutionized the genre, infusing it with traces of R&B, graphic lyrics (some in English) and, of course, his high tenor. When Santos started out, the only bachata superstar was Juan Luis Guerra, the iconic Dominican singer-songwriter who mainstreamed the genre among Latin music fans with sophisticated arrangements that crossed over to Latin pop radio. But beyond Guerra (and unlike other tropical genres), bachata never really took off on U.S. radio or internationally until Aventura spawned a new generation of bachateros. With 20 No. 1s on Billboard’s Latin Airplay chart, Santos is far and away the leader of that pack.

Now he’s releasing Vol. 3 on Sept. 1 in full, without any further singles on the market — a potentially risky move for an artist of his stature, but a nod to Santos’ confidence in his music and the responsibility he feels for his genre. “I’ve taken this ‘King of Bachata’ title very personally,” says Santos, who named his home studio outside Manhattan “The Castle” and decorated it with suits of armor. The “king” moniker has stuck since Aventura released Kings of Bachata in 2006. “It’s a huge responsibility. It was very risky, very descarado to say, ‘We’re the kings of bachata!’ But you can say anything you want as long as you back it up, and I take pride in that. I want to make sure that all my albums, whether people like them or not, they can listen to and realize there was some production, there was work put in. I’m very meticuloso when it comes to my music. When I do anything, even a salsa, it sounds like Romeo Santos.”

Vol. 3 very much sounds like Romeo Santos, from fast-clip merengue to pop/bachata fusion, as on “Sin Fin” (Endless) with Timberlake. He and Rosalía shot videos with Santos in August, and if the example of “Sus Huellas” is any indication — the track debuted at No. 1 on the Latin Airplay chart and in multiple countries thanks in part to “takeover” radio campaigns that had multiple stations playing it several times a day — they’re also likely to become hits.

“I very much like that he remains faithful to himself and that instead of adapting to what’s trending, he is the trend,” says Afo Verde, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Latin Iberia. “He feels he’s an ambassador. And I love that instead of saying, ‘I’m going to make a reggaetón album,’ the man does a bachata album. You can obsess [over] streams, but today, the best way to be successful is to make an extraordinary album.”

For friend and collaborator Rosalía — herself no stranger to making albums that defy commercial odds — Santos’ approach to music makes sense. “A singer-songwriter who touches on themes that excite people will never be out of style because he goes beyond styles, beyond trends, moments and algorithms,” she says. “If on top of that it sounds different to anything you’ve heard before, it’s a done deal. Romeo has always done his own thing and defended his sound. That’s why he has always been relevant.”


The next time I meet Santos, it’s in a different car — in the back seat of a black Escalade slowly cruising along Boston Road in the Bronx, where he was born and raised. Playing tour guide in the old neighborhood is not the norm for the very private Santos. But to understand how he went from Anthony to Romeo, one has to see these streets.

“This is my family home, which my mom refuses to leave under any circumstances,” he says, pointing to a modest, four-story brick building abutting a nondescript park. One of Santos’ first major purchases was a big house in the suburbs for her, but she has never left this Bronx corner. “You have no idea the sh-t I’ve tried to get her out of there,” he continues, “but she will tell you that she feels comfortable here, and I have to respect that.”

There’s his old elementary school, where he had a crush on his kindergarten teacher, Ms. Bisbano; the barber shop where he got haircuts; the site of El Internacional, the Dominican restaurant that gave Aventura its first gigs, paying the group with meals; the street corner where Santos walked away unscathed after an oncoming firetruck smashed his car; Morris High School, where he first started to sing.

“I was very certain that I wanted to be an artist. I just never processed that I could make a living from it,” he says. Being born in the Bronx means “you’re exposed to so much cultura and different genres that you’re either going to be a rapper, a bachata singer, a salsero or something illegal,” he says with a laugh. “I became an artist.”

Romeo Santos
Romeo Santos photographed on July 8, 2022 at The Panorama Room at the Graduate Roosevelt Island in New York. McQ sweater, Burberry pants, Dior shoes, Palm Angels necklace and ring. Grace Rivera

As the lead singer of Aventura, Santos was already an established star when he went solo in 2012. After the group’s breakout 2002 single, “Obsession,” became a surprise No. 1 hit in Europe before crossing back to the United States, Aventura’s star rose. Kings of Bachata became the second top-selling Latin album of 2007, according to Luminate; The Last was the top-selling Latin album in 2009; and Aventura had the top Latin tour on Billboard’s 2010 year-end charts, including four sold-out dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden. When the group disbanded in 2011, Santos signed to Sony Music Latin and launched his solo career with Formula, Vol. 1. It made him the top-selling Latin act in the country for two straight years.

“Sometimes there are artists who are able to carry music further than its genre,” says Desiree Pérez, CEO of Roc Nation (where Santos was briefly CEO of the now-shuttered Latin division; more on that later). “The doors that he has opened for bachata artists around the world are tremendous. You don’t have to change your music to introduce it to the world, and that’s special.”

The success of Aventura and Santos, as U.S.-raised bachateros who infused their music with an American sensibility, gave rise to a new generation of bachata singers, most notably Prince Royce, who in June placed his 15th No. 1 on the Latin Airplay chart alongside Argentine urban artist Maria Becerra. Others, like Leslie Grace and Monchy & Alexandra, have seen their impact plateau in the past decade as urban music has taken over the Latin charts.

But, arguably thanks to Santos and his Formula series, bachata has remained a tantalizing menu item that artists from many genres — tropical, pop, urban — like to sample in their music from time to time. And in the past 12 months, a variety of non-bachata acts, from Manuel Turizo to Rosalía (in a duet with The Weeknd) to Ivy Queen, have had bachata-infused hits. By the same token, Santos, who has long brought urban acts onto his own bachata tracks, in 2020 lent his voice to a handful of remixes for Nicky Jam, Anuel AA and Arcángel.

For Vol. 3, he made a conscious choice to step back from that. “To be completely transparent, at this point in my career, there’s a couple million people who respect and love what I do,” says Santos. “I’m not competing against anyone. I’m really competing against myself when it comes to this bachata vibe. If I were trying to conquistar a new crowd, maybe I’d have those concerns. But this is music for people who will appreciate it. If you’re a new fan and you become a Romeista, that’s also a blessing.”

Romeo Santos
Romeo Santos photographed on July 8, 2022 at The Panorama Room at the Graduate Roosevelt Island in New York. Grace Rivera

While Dominican influence pervades Vol. 3, ambitious collaborations with artists outside of bachata define Santos’ Formula series. In that regard, working with Rosalía wasn’t totally surprising; she’s an avowed Santos fan, and her single with The Weeknd, “La Fama,” is a bachata. The work itself, however, was complex because Santos wanted to actually create a song with Rosalía rather than give her a finished product. He had been trying to record with her for years — “She has superstar DNA; as big as she is, she will only get bigger,” he says — but their schedules never meshed. When they did, Santos had to take into consideration the fact that, as a producer, Rosalía could go toe-to-toe with him. “I presented her with something she could take to another level,” he says. “Even with the video, I put that in her hands. I said, ‘I love your visuals, I love the way you create, I want it to look like that.’ ”

Timberlake was another story. Santos revered him much as he had previous Formula guests Usher and Drake, but the two had never met and had few connections; simply gauging his interest took almost a year. But Santos considered it a particularly personal mission and was bent on making it happen.

“Ninety-nine percent of my records are written and produced by me,” he says. “But on Aventura’s first album, I took ‘Gone’ by *NSYNC and rewrote and translated it to Spanish,” he says, referring to an all-acoustic cover from the group’s 2002 album, We Broke the Rules. “It’s crazy how things line up. That was history in the making without realizing it.”

Once Timberlake did come on board, then came the “easy” task: presenting him “with a record that at least makes sense with my story.” Santos recruited longtime collaborator Rico Love and producer Danja (who with Timbaland co-produced all of Timberlake’s 2006 album, FutureSexLoveSounds) to come up with “Sin Fin.”

“He said, ‘I dig this.’ What I respect about JT is he not only recorded his vocals but he turned that song that now I feel was at 30% into something completely different for the better,” says Santos. “He changed the melody, the lyrics; he wrote, he produced. There was a moment where I was at the studio and he was directing my guitarist. To me, that was surreal: JT is producing a bachata.”


When Santos began working on Vol. 3 pre-pandemic, he hadn’t intended it to be a Formula — locking in Timberlake, that unexpected collaboration, steered him in that direction. Likewise, plans for the production shifted with collaborator schedules, and video shoots got delayed. (The video for “Sin Fin,” for example, was shot in August.)

But Santos was adamant about keeping the Sept. 1 release date. Instead of putting out a new single, he opted to simply announce on Aug. 15 that Vol. 3 was coming in two weeks and focus all promotion efforts post-release. (On social media, the announcement was limited to posts of a king’s crown spinning to the tune of a bachata riff, with the release date.) While details were still scarce at press time, Sony is planning a global rollout that also includes heavy promotion in Spain and Latin America and videos for every track.

“It’s the first time we do something like this [no singles] with a full album, but it will be huge,” says consultant Artie Pabón, Santos’ business partner who is a fellow Bronx native and the closest thing the singer has to a manager. “I don’t like labels like ‘manager,’ ” says Santos. “I’ve always kind of managed myself, but I have a great team that I trust.” Ostensibly, he was long managed by Johnny Marines, his former head of security who remains a friend. Like Marines, Pabón and Santos go way back: Pabón booked Aventura to open for Don Omar in 2006, when the group was independent and, says Pabón, considered “unstructured” by many in the industry.

“I bet on them,” says Pabón. “It really comes down to the music and the artist’s behavior. You can have great music and horrible habits. I’ve never seen anybody in my 33 years in business who works as hard as Romeo on his brand, his music and himself.”

Romeo Santos
Romeo Santos photographed on July 8, 2022 at The Panorama Room at the Graduate Roosevelt Island in New York. Grace Rivera

Before the pandemic hit, Santos was actually in the process of making some adjustments to his business. In 2017, he signed an exclusive deal for U.S. touring with Live Nation, which promoted two legs of his Golden arena tour (including three sellouts at Madison Square Garden; the deal has since expired, though Santos and his team are in ongoing conversations with the promoter). Live Nation also promoted the 2020-21 Aventura reunion tour that, despite being truncated by the pandemic, grossed $46.6 million and sold 350,000 tickets from 19 reported shows, according to Billboard Boxscore.

All told, Aventura has grossed $75.6 million and sold 769,000 tickets across its career. As a soloist, Santos has grossed $95.9 million and sold 1.1 million tickets in the United States, including his 2019 show at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, which grossed $9 million and sold 60,000 tickets. (The concert was subsequently turned into a live album and film.) That followed his back-to-back shows at New York’s Yankee Stadium in 2014, which made him the first Latin artist to ever sell out the venue.

Today, of course, Bad Bunny is in the midst of a stadium tour (where he just headlined Yankee Stadium twice), singing in Spanish, and Grupo Firme is playing regional Mexican music in sold-out stadiums. But the potential for shows of that magnitude to even happen for a Latin act was arguably first realized by Santos, who raised the bar for what others could achieve.

“He broke down every barrier any bachata and tropical artist had ever done,” says Hans Schafer, senior vp of Latin touring for Live Nation. “He is one of the first who began this movement of sticking to your guns, and by that I mean [changing] the crossover strategy of releasing [music] in English. He was one of the first who said, ‘These [non-Latin] artists will jump on my sound.’ I think that was the precursor of the Latin boom we’re seeing now.”

Romeo Santos
Romeo Santos photographed on July 8, 2022 at Roosevelt Island in New York. Pierre Blanc shirt and pants, Raf Simons shoes. Grace Rivera

While he plans a 2023 outing, which Pabón says will again include arenas and stadiums, Santos is also focusing on growing other areas of his business, specifically in film and TV as an actor and producer. In 2019, he signed a new agency deal with Nigel Meiojas, Mike G and David Zedeck at UTA. In their first project, Santos will executive-produce an original Amazon film, Never Look Back, with a narrative based in the Bronx, in partnership with Mexican actor-director Eugenio Derbez’s production company. Filming is slated to begin next year, and Santos will executive-produce the soundtrack. There’s also a partnership with Audible in development for an eight-episode scripted serial inspired by the lyrics of his songs, for which production should start this year.

Santos has always had good instincts for what works best for his brand — and also for what just isn’t the right fit. In 2016, he was appointed CEO of Roc Nation Latino, a full-service division of Roc Nation dedicated to Latin music. He left a few years later — it simply wasn’t his thing — but he still says the lessons he learned informed how he thinks about his business today. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity, but it wasn’t the right time for me,” he says. “Being in Roc Nation showed me that you have to be a multitasker and know how to divide your time correctly. I’ve always been too hands-on in my career, and I realize how difficult it is divide yourself.”

And in the end, making albums is what still excites Santos the most. “Risk,” “responsibility,” “challenge” — they’re all words that he repeats constantly when referring to his music, including his new album. Being at a major label, and specifically at Sony, suits his will-not-be-rushed creative style. He likes the stability and the regionwide support it offers, allowing him to focus on making the music he likes, the way he likes, with unwavering focus on a genre that may have slipped but Santos refuses to let fall.

“If these new bachateros do not find a unique sound or music identity that makes them special, bachata may not disappear, but you’ll just end up listening to the classics,” he says when asked about the genre’s future. “While there is a lot of potential, they’re either re-creating what has already been invented or they’re reutilizing the narrative so that there’s no unity. I agree we should collaborate, but that’s not the main reason bachata is stuck. I didn’t collaborate with Royce and he did fine. Where I would like to see bachata is the way I see urban music: They collaborate, but more than that, the big ones are all hungry and they all sound different.

“I’m never insecure about my music,” he adds with a smile. “In other ways, I’m not as confident. But onstage and when it comes to my music, I think I’m the greatest.”

romeo santos, billboard cover, 2022

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 27, 2022, issue of Billboard.