A report by Isabelia Herrera for The New York Times.
On his third album, “Saturno,” the Puerto Rican musician further reimagines the genre, drawing on the worlds of Miami bass, late ’90s underground and freestyle music.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Rauw Alejandro often hid the mix CDs his uncle gave him, which usually included explicit lyrics, from his father. They featured puckish pop-punk bands like Blink-182, but also the precocious stars of underground, a synthesis of hip-hop and dancehall that predated reggaeton.
“Don’t even ask me about my outfits,” the self-described “emo reggaetonero” said, taking bites of a sandwich during a recent phone call from Miami. Between photo shoots and studio sessions, he was racing to finish his third album, “Saturno,” which landed last week. “They were horrible,” he said of his early wardrobe choices, which reflected his genre-mashing tastes. “They were like, studded chokers, but with white Air Force 1s.”
Now 29, Alejandro still has a nonconformist streak, but he also happens to be one of the biggest stars of Spanish-language music. Over the last six years, he’s garnered a reputation as a slick heartthrob; it’s not uncommon for fans to fling their bras onstage at his shows, or squeal uncontrollably when he thrusts his hips during a dance routine.
But the playboy theatrics don’t tell the whole story. Alejandro also has an imaginative, renegade approach to pop music. His songs soften the edges of R&B, dancehall and reggaeton and sprinkle them with the glitter of disco and synth pop.
Alejandro’s first studio album, “Afrodisíaco” (2020), built on the following he’d amassed on SoundCloud for his crepuscular collages of R&B and reggaeton. Its 2021 follow-up, “Vice Versa,” took a more audacious approach; it incorporated elements of drum and bass, deep house and disco, igniting conversations about reggaeton and electronic music’s longstanding intersections. He’s nominated for eight awards at the Latin Grammys on Thursday night.
Before his music career, Raúl Alejandro Ocasio Ruiz was a small-town kid growing up in Canóvanas, a mountainous and tranquil area of Puerto Rico a far cry from the bustling nearby city of Carolina, where he attended school. His father played the guitar, and his mother was a backup singer and dancer. When he was 12, his parents divorced, and Alejandro moved to Carolina permanently with his mother.
Music was never really a sure shot, or even his long-term ambition: At first, Alejandro envisioned life as a professional soccer player. “I’ve always been a fan of going against the grain, like, ‘OK, everyone wants to play baseball and basketball, so I’ll play soccer,’” he said. He dedicated his life to the sport when he was 7, attended the University of Puerto Rico on a scholarship and even moved to Orlando, Fla., to train for the semiprofessional USL League Two.
But at 21, he reached a crossroads. In spite of his commitment, a professional career seemed unlikely to pan out. Disillusionment, frustration and family financial troubles ultimately led him to shelve his soccer dreams. In the aftermath, music was his therapy. “I’d start to record really bad songs,” he said with a laugh. “The creative part relaxed me a lot.” He started showing demos to his friends, including Kenobi, a high school classmate and fellow former soccer hopeful who is now one of his trusted producers and sound engineers. They encouraged him to share his music online.
Alejandro started uploading R&B tracks to SoundCloud around 2016, joining a local crop of unsigned but soon-to-be superstars, including Bad Bunny. Many of them drew inspiration from the darker threads of R&B. “I identified a lot with that wave because I’m not a rapper,” he said. “We were in another vibe, like, ‘We’re the cool boys. We’re doing different stuff,’” he added with another laugh.
In early 2017, he landed a record deal with Duars Entertainment. But the next three years were far from linear: Hurricane Maria and its subsequent economic devastation hit Puerto Rico, forcing Alejandro briefly to move back to the mainland and take retail jobs to make ends meet. He eventually returned to the island, and in 2019, he unveiled his debut EP, “Trap Cake, Vol. 1.” A year later, his first studio album, “Afrodisíaco,” arrived.
“Saturno” builds on the sparkling club textures that Alejandro has explored in the past. But this time, he traverses the worlds of Miami bass, late ’90s underground and ’80s and ’90s freestyle. Much of today’s mainstream reggaeton production has been dulled down for pop audiences, but the retrofuturist “Saturno” launches the genre into deep space. “Saturn is the planet of Capricorns, and it’s also the planet of melancholy and nostalgia,” said Alejandro, who is a Capricorn himself. “They even say it’s a planet that represents hard work, ambition, consistency, sacrifice. And that’s something that I identify with.”
Tainy, a modern architect of reggaeton who worked on “Saturno,” said that Alejandro’s punctilious, concept-driven approach sets him apart in the industry, and ups the ante for his peers. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s create a piece of art in terms of the album — not just the songs, but the aesthetic of the production that comes with it. What’s the message behind it, the concept, videos, artwork?’” he explained in a video call. “I really feel it puts the pressure on everybody else.”
Alejandro knew he wanted a nostalgic touch for this record, and something that would make for a dynamic live show. While other recent pop releases, like the Weeknd’s “Dawn FM,” have explored past imaginings of the future, the focus has often been synthwave or ’90s house. “No one had gone into that corner of ’90s freestyle,” he explained. That influence suffuses the entire record: There is the throwback thump of “Verde Menta,” which lands like a propulsive revamp of an Exposé track. On the Susana Estrada-sampling “Más de Una Vez,” Alejandro’s caramel falsetto floats over carbonated digital synths and drum machines.
He also recruited the reggaeton forefather DJ Playero, whose underground mixtapes were essential to the genre’s proliferation in the ’90s. “Punto 40” and “Dejau” interpolate some of Playero’s live performances, albums and street mixes, while the explosive hometown anthem “De Carolina” riffs on excerpts from the foundational tape “Playero 38,” like “La Gente Sabe,” by the duo Maicol y Manuel. Alongside his producers, Alejandro worked with Playero to help shape the tracks.
“If I’m using these sounds, if I’m using these colors, I want to show respect to the people who did it,” Alejandro said. “I try to make it alternative and new and a modern fusion, but still respecting the codes of the old school.”
Alejandro’s go-to producers, including Mr. NaisGai, Caleb Calloway and Kenobi, appear on “Saturno” too. Alejandro brought the crew a playlist as a mood board, compiling references he was interested in exploring on the record. While he had provided general direction for the sound of his projects in the past, he had never been directly involved in beatmaking or production. This time around, he said he co-produced about 80 percent of the album under the alias El Zorro.
“It was one of my goals as an artist not to stay boxed in,” he said. “I’ve always had this hunger to learn anything I can.”
Kenobi noted that Alejandro has always been indefatigable — in school, music and life. “You always want to work with people who — not even work, surround yourself with — people who fill you with life, with ambition.” he said in a video call. “Without you realizing it, he brings out the best in you.”
For Tainy, Alejandro’s ability to erode boundaries feels like a new moment in mainstream Spanish-language pop. It’s “a point in time where we’re so free and open to try new things, where 10 years before, it wasn’t the same,” he said. “The weirdos are coming out as the thing right now.”