By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
The first fans arrive at 1, lining up inside the FYE at the intersection Verveleen and Broadway in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Northwest Bronx. At 3:15, the line leaves the store and extends down two blocks. This is a school day, but some things are more important than school.
One of those things is Prince Royce, the 23-year-old homegrown bachatero who is here to sign copies of Phase II, the follow-up to 2010's triple-platinum, Latin Grammy–nominated, global-chart-topping self-titled debut. The local Latin radio stations are all here, and when they play Royce's new songs, everyone sings along.
When they play his old songs—silky ballads like the dejected "El Amor Que Perdimos," a melancholy kiss-off to a cheating lover, or the more upbeat "Mi Ultima Carta," in which Royce cuts things off with his own amour because otherwise "me matara la tentacion," the temptation will kill him—everyone screams in the direction of any camera pointed their way. Most in line won't see the handsome young singer for well over an hour, and even then only for more than a few minutes.
Long before changing patterns of immigration helped make its bongo and güira rhythms some of the most popular in New York, bachata developed from the constellation of Latin American–guitar genres that included, most importantly to this story, Cuban bolero, a romantic style that first entered the Dominican Republic when the late 19th-century Cuban Wars of Independence pushed a generation of musicians East toward Hispaniola. In the 1960s, bachata emerged when rural workers settled on the urban periphery brought those guitar genres with them, and by the 1970s, the name and sound began to stick.
Beginning with 1999's Generation Next, Bronx-born quartet Aventura revolutionized the genre, fusing it with, among other things, reggaeton (most prominently in the Don Omar–featuring God's Project single "Ella y Yo"), Bollywood (the Asha Bhosle–sampling "Un Chi Chi"), and of course, hip-hop (just about everywhere else), and using this sound to sell out Madison Square Garden four nights in a row.
Although he cites the influence of older stars such as Juan Luis Guerra, whose 1990 Bachata Rosa first made the music acceptable for the middle class, and Antony Santos, whom he remembers his parents listening to constantly, you can draw a straight line from Aventura to Royce, who has connected with audiences to a degree far beyond other would-be successors like Xtreme and Toby Love.
"I grew up to that music, and they got me into listening to bachata," he says backstage after his recent sold-out Radio City Musical Hall debut, recalling the February performance when Aventura frontman Romeo Santos brought him out to sing two of his songs before another sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd.
"I have a picture with him. I was 14, and he was twentysomething. Before the concert, we really sat down, and he was like, 'Wow, all these years it's only been Aventura, Aventura, and then finally another act came out that's getting the same love.'" These days, with an appearance at Jay-Z's recent Made in America festival and an English-language album on the way, Royce is working to find fans where even Aventura never did.
Growing up in the Bronx's Patterson Houses, crossing over wasn't just a marketing strategy but a way of life. "I've loved different genres of music equally," he explains. "I was listening to bachata, merengue, salsa, hip-hop, r&b—I used to listen to a lot of Usher and still do."
These days, that influence courses through songs like Phase II's "Close to You," a bilingual slow jam complete with a string arrangement and boom-bap drum-kit percussion, or "Addicted," an ode to Sunday-morning cuddling that, until the bongos enter midway through, sounds like something that would fit snuggly on the back half of Justin Bieber's recent Believe.
"I'd speak Spanish at home, English at school. I've loved both languages equally, and that's what this is about, you know? Even though I was born and raised in New York as an American citizen, I still cherish those Dominican roots that my parents taught me, and I still ate the food, still listened to the music," he says, unfazed by the screams that occasionally erupt from outside the stage door three stories below.
Fittingly, after a few teenage years of writing music and playing half-empty clubs around the metropolitan area—not only in the five boroughs but also up in Yonkers and out on Long Island—Royce broke through with a swooning bachata cover of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," recorded with no intention of it even being released as a single.
"I wanted to do it in bachata because we've seen covers by John Lennon, Lady Gaga, Usher, but I'd never heard the song in Spanish with that tropical feeling." Soon, the song became inescapable and its singer a star, joining King himself to perform the tune at the 2010 Latin Grammys.
From there, more awards, more sold-out shows, and more number-one hits. "Corazón Sin Cara," in which swelling strings and vocals erupt into a last-moment breakdown, and the aforementioned "El Amor Que Perdimos," perhaps his best song yet, dominated the following summer as thoroughly as "Stand by Me" did the previous, leading to a stadium tour in support of Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias. In April, a week after that FYE signing rendered the Broadway sidewalks unusable, Phase II debuted in the Billboard Top 20 and topped both the Latin and tropical charts, where it remains at number one 25 weeks later.
Back at Radio City, Royce proves himself to be just as charming onstage as he is on record and in an interview. For "Incondicional," Phase II's biggest hit, he brings a fan onstage and serenades her over the song's mariachi horns as if she is Juliet standing on the balcony at the House of Capulet.
A long way from the early bachateros playing by themselves on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, he sings in front of a 10-piece band, one that includes three guitarists, two backup singers, and both bongos and a drum kit. After opening with Daddy Yankee collab "Ven Conmigo," he talks to his fans before playing the cover of that 1961 Ben E. King standard that started it all.
"This is your generation!" he tells them. They all scream.