In a World of Dembow, Romeo Santos Stays Close to His Bleeding-Heart Bachata Roots on ‘Golden’

Lead Photo: Romeo Santos. Courtesy of Roc Nation
Romeo Santos. Courtesy of Roc Nation
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Today at the stroke of midnight, millions of panties across the world dropped in unison.

Romeo Santos, Bronx-born cooing master, anointed King of Bachata and veritable producer of audio aphrodisiacs, dropped his third solo album Golden today. The release comes on his 36th birthday, and, like the doting lothario he performs as on stage, Santos celebrated by lovingly pampering fans with music that has been three years in the making.

In some ways, the success of Golden is preordained. He’s earned his crown after leaving Aventura, embarking on a wildly popular solo venture and selling out Yankee Stadium two nights in a row. These days, he’s become so beloved that almost anything he does will likely get applause, adulation, and air kisses, something Golden’s seemed to prove almost immediately. The first singles, “Héroe Favorito” and “Imitadora,” both surged up Billboard’s Latin Airplay chart, knocking “Despacito” out of the no. 1 spot faster than you could say “so nasty.” But Golden also has to live up to standards, and for devoted audiences, those are high.

If Formula, Vol. 1 and 2 were petri dishes for experimentation, Golden is Santos deciding on a final recipe and doubling down on the elements that have made him a resounding success. Rather than chasing the mythical English-to-Spanish transition à la Shakira and Ricky Martin, Santos bisected international markets en español and lured English-speaking stars, like Drake and Nicki Minaj, to him. Now, after artfully executing a crossover in reverse, Santos is focusing on what’s responsible for his celebrity and delivering large, uninterrupted swaths of bachata and romance.

In the past, Santos has braved new genres: He joined Marc Anthony for a salsa effort on “Yo También,” Pitbull for a few thumping “dales” on “Aleluya” and Tego Calderon for a dancehall dose on “Trust.” Santos stays in his bachata lane on a lot of Golden, occasionally stepping out for the reggaeton bop “Bella y Sensual” with Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee, and the doowop ballad “Un Vuelo a LA,” which showcases the power of Jessie Reyez’s rasp. The album’s opener “Golden Intro” and closer “Sin Filtro” also deliver elements of straight hip-hop and R&B to the release.

But Santos conducts most of his tests within the confines of bachata on this album. “Imitadora” sways back and forth with synths that feel like laser beams, and “Premio” gets an electronic touch courtesy of Swizz Beatz. There are plenty of nods to bachata’s old-school charms, notably on “Carmín” with Juan Luis Guerra. Santos also enlists one of his inspirations Julio Iglesias for “El Amigo.”

Golden also sees Santos leaning into the Romeo persona hard. He’s joked in interviews that the casanova he plays is a performance, yet he commits with more conviction than any method actor here. The insanely addictive “Sobredosis” is the world’s longest Valentine’s Day card put to music, making effective use of a cameo from fellow baby-voiced vocalist Ozuna. The jazz-infused “Héroe Favorito” is a promise to save any damsel from distress. These love songs, loaded with drippy feelings and bleeding-heart declarations, border on the corny, but Santos’ power is his infallible ability to get away with the most melodramatic gestures.

Even though Santos wears the Romeo mask on Golden, he told the New York Daily News that “a good 70 percent of what you’re going to hear are a lot of things that, at some point in my life, I personally experienced.” Let the speculation commence. Digging on this album produces a stream of personal stories and admissions. “Perjurio,” is a deeply frank, if somewhat creepy, lament about taking an 18-year-old’s virginity; “Centavito” is the sound of wet man tears after cheating. “El Amigo” is particularly enigmatic. Still, it’s hard to know when to pull back the curtain on Santos, who is famously evasive about his private life.

That makes the moments of honesty on Golden significant, even when they translate into unabashed hubris now and again. On “Sin Filtro,” he proclaims, “When you are the fucking greatest, many question that you’re great. I think I’ve done it all but walk on the moon.” Rather than being off-putting, Santos’s braggadocio and relentless sense of self are welcome, and perhaps even somewhat warranted — after all, he’s an artist who has been unafraid to perform a more traditional genre and found mass appeal sticking to his instincts.

For fans who may miss Santos’ more risky and experimental adventures in urban and pop genres, there’s no doubt he’ll continue to evolve and probe his own sound. However, the bachata on Golden feels particularly refreshing when the airwaves are brimming with dembow-lite experimentations from U.S. stars, especially as that sound saturates the pop universe. Santos has never wavered in his dedication to bachata, the Spanish language, and his Latino identity. He could easily run off to the next fame pedestal and achieved broader recognition in American pop. Instead, as he told The FADER earlier this year, “I’m sending the message I’m not interested in crossing over. I want you to cross over into my world.” For now, he remains happily married to everything that has made him Romeo.