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It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Puerto Rican star Rauw Alejandro, with his billions of streams and sold-out mega-shows, doesn’t half-ass things. Even so, his commitment to victory is startling as he walks across a dystopian-looking paintball field near Miami one blazing-hot morning, carrying himself with the gravity of a highly decorated general. The 29-year-old artist, usually quick to flash an ice-white smile that twinkles with actual diamonds a dentist drilled into his teeth, is lethally serious as he eyes his teammates, who include me, assessing abilities and assigning duties.
Rauw had an opening in a grueling schedule that’s loaded with back-to-back rehearsals, performances, and studio sessions, so he’s organized a group of about 15 friends, among them Luis Jonuel Gonzalez Maldonado, or Mr. NaisGai, his frequent producer, and the reggaeton artist Lyanno, who’s hanging by in an apocalyptic-looking helmet. Some of these people have been around since Rauw began uploading earnest songs to SoundCloud about eight years ago, and they’re used to seeing him channel his extreme competitiveness into sports. I, however, hadn’t imagined the outing being quite as serious, and when I tell him as much, his response is part youth coach, part fortune cookie: “You have to do things full-out.”
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Rauw is wearing a thick black hoodie under a T-shirt with the face of a lion stretched across it — he thought ahead and wore extra layers to avoid the sting of paintball shells. He puts me in charge of defense, but minutes into the game a shell explodes on my hand. I’m lamely nursing a bleeding finger when Rauw’s choreographer from the opposing team, Felix “Fefe” Burgos, hurls his entire body toward the area I’m supposed to be protecting, a flying tangle of red hair and lanky limbs that wins the first round. It’s a short-lived triumph; Rauw yanks down his helmet and darts across the field in double time the next two rounds, taking the game for his team like he planned all along.
Once the relentless pop of paintball guns has died down, Rauw is back to joking around with his friends, letting out a clipped chuckle that sounds like a vocal loop got caught in his throat. He describes himself as pretty “low-key,” even though his sheer determination to shake things up in the Spanish-speaking industry is a big part of what’s launched him into wild, sky-grazing stardom. In Latin music, which continues to outpace overall U.S. music revenues, Rauw has charted a rare path as a triple threat and a new kind of star: a charismatic, gyrating showman whose smooth singing, limber choreography, and mutinous ear for production mark something starkly different in reggaeton — if you can even classify his music as that. His sound, futuristic and heavily indebted to R&B, has sold out arenas across the world. Fans in places as far-flung as Zaragoza, Spain, and Milwaukee throw drawers’ worth of lingerie at him while screaming to smashes like the six-times-platinum hit “Todo de Ti.”
“He’s just an exciting artist,” says Tainy, the mega-producer who has shaped the sound of contemporary reggaeton. “To see what he’s doing and what he’s capable of, the melody and the tone of his voice, and combine that with his ideas — how he’s thinking about what moves he’s gonna do, what the crowd is going to do — it’s something really special. His growth is insane.”
Yet along with the glow of his rising fame and the lean, laid-back coolness of his presence, there’s also an intense scrappiness in Rauw. “I see him as someone who wants to push,” his close friend and collaborator, the rapper Álvaro Diaz, tells me. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re saying I can’t dance?’ OK. ‘I’m not supposed to do this?’ OK. ‘This isn’t going to work?’ OK. It’s like those things feed him to go harder.”
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone. Director of Creative Content: Catriona Ni Aolain. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Produced by HG Producers. Grooming by Millie Morales. Hair by Alexis Centeno. Tailoring by Nery Montoya. Styling by Darius Baptist. Jacket by Red September. Gold link necklace by Vitaly. Pearl necklace by Jewels by Dunn. Opening image: Pants by Saint Laurent. Watch by Cartier.
The word Diaz uses to describe Rauw is “hungry.” That hunger started building up during years spent broke and frustrated in Puerto Rico, hitting wall after wall professionally. He trained most of his life to become a soccer player, before a bid to go semi-pro in the U.S. ended in crushing failure and sent him back home, where he spent some time in retail purgatory, trying to figure out his next move. Once he’d landed on music, it was slow going: His early SoundCloud uploads lingered with a few meager plays, maybe 100 per song. “That’s like your grandma listening to your songs,” he says with a biting laugh. His unorthodox sound took a while to catch on, and no one understood the dancing at first. And then, just when he was starting to make local gains, Hurricane Maria ripped violently through the island in 2017, leaving destruction and devastation that people still haven’t recovered from.
In Puerto Rico, economic hardships are inextricably tied to a brutal history of colonization and exploitation at the hands of the U.S. government. For a time, Rauw’s career kept slamming into dead ends when all he wanted was to take care of his family: “I saw them suffering. You don’t want to see them sad. You go, ‘Why are you sad?’ Then you learn it’s because there’s no money. Las necesidades. All that shit.” He was trying to find an escape hatch, a way they wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else. “That was the main reason I wanted to be successful in music, in life,” he says. “I didn’t want my family to have to depend on the government. Fuck the government. I was like, ‘I’m gonna build my own system.’ ”
That system has revealed itself over the past few years. He ended 2020 on a high, after releasing his debut album, Afrodisíaco, that November. It’s full of Rauw’s signature winding melodies, sprawled out over the thud of old-school reggaeton. He moved from there to a flood of collaborations in 2021, including the duet “Baila Conmigo” with Selena Gomez, which opened him up to more pop audiences. But what led to the seismic quake in his career was last June’s Vice Versa, an experimental effort that flipped his sound swiftly and unexpectedly, like turning on a hidden light switch. The album is heavy on electronic sounds, including the thundering drum-and-bass breakbeats of “¿Cuándo Fue?” “Todo de Ti,” an Eighties-inspired opener as shiny as a disco ball, reached Number Two on Spotify’s Global 200 and secured 450 million views on YouTube, more than Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” and Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever.”
Rauw has been on the road since last July. Though his schedule is hectic, it’s been packed with the kind of marquee-making career highlights that even established artists dream of: In October, he sold out four nights at the famed Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot, the 18,500-seat arena that’s become a rite of passage for the biggest reggaeton stars. About a month later, he won his first Latin Grammy, for Best Urban Fusion/Performance, with his remix of the song “Tattoo” alongside the Colombian crooner Camilo. And a couple of days after that, he received a call from his management team letting him know that Afrodisíaco had been nominated for Best Música Urbana Album at the Anglo Grammys.
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone. Chain-mail headgear by Laurel Dewitt. Sandals and Jeans by Roberto Cavalli.
All the while, Rauw has been rehearsing nonstop. When we first meet at the end of November, he’s days away from what he thinks will be his 63rd show of the year. He’s shirtless in a makeup trailer, tattoos covering almost every surface of his chest. He’s getting ready to go to the Louis Vuitton spring-summer 2022 men’s spinoff show, which has turned into a memorial honoring Virgil Abloh. Rauw, who loves fashion and calls himself a massive fan of Abloh’s, has exactly 20 minutes before a fleet of small, important boats filled with nearly every celebrity on the planet — Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Pharrell Williams — begins making its way to the show at Miami Marine Stadium. A woman kneels in front of him with an LED nail lamp, giving him the world’s fastest manicure and pedicure.
Rauw sits calmly, but he’s in about three places at once: talking to me, chatting with his nearby personal assistant, turning his face upward so his groomer can make tiny, imperceptible adjustments to his eyebrows, all designed to maximize his prettiness. A snippet of “Todo de Ti” starts blasting from someone’s phone; the song follows him around like a double-edged reminder of both his recent accomplishments and the chart-busting streaming behemoths people expect from him now. “Doing good music isn’t easy in terms of, like, after hit after hit,” Rauw says. “You feel like now you’re pickier. It’s like, ‘Oh shit, I need to be more strict — with the sounds, the lyrics, the melodies, everything’ . . . It gets stressful sometimes.”
Rauw has a couple of shows left before the year closes out, then he’s heading to the studio to put the finishing touches on Trap Cake Vol. 2, a project he says riffs on the trap and R&B roots longtime fans might remember from his underground days. (Rauw plans to have it out by the end of April.) Then he’s starting the recording process for another album, expected out later in the year. In March, his tour ramps up again. The biggest challenge, Rauw says, is quality control. “You’re doing the videos, you’re doing shoots, you’re doing production, you’re doing shows. Something is gonna mess up. It’s almost impossible. But it is what it is,” he says, wearily. A couple of people flit into the room with time checks, letting Rauw know the window to leave for the fashion show is shrinking with every second.
Rauw lists a couple of ways he decompresses. “I try to be with my girl,” he says, referring to the Spanish singer Rosalía. “We fly a weekend off, if we can.” The couple has been Instagram-official since September, after fans spent more than a year inspecting each and every one of their photos and frequent social media exchanges. There are also the elaborate activities, like paintball and riding motorbikes and Jet Skis with friends, when he can. But the truth is, the urge to keep going is hard-wired in him. “I try to have fun, but I’m a workaholic. After a few days of being off, I get this thing, like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he says, looking around, pantomiming restlessness. “I need to work.”
The room gets cleared out so Rauw can change, and he emerges in head-to-toe Louis Vuitton — one of the looks from the 2021 men’s collection, composed of a brown turtleneck sweater dotted with tiny LV logos, flared brown pants, and what looks like a massive wrestling champion’s belt tied around his waist. He ends up making it onto his boat, of course, and finds out that he’s sailing over to the venue with Ricky Martin, whom he’s never met in person.
The two of them chat about the event and take a video that Rauw quickly uploads to his Instagram stories. “Ricky, chilling,” he narrates in Spanish. “Rauw in the back, getting some sun.” Martin flashes a peace sign and jokes, “Having a bad time!” The boat speeds on, two generations of Latin pop bobbing tranquilly across foamy Miami waters.
A casual encounter with a pop icon like Ricky Martin is something Rauw, born Raúl Alejandro Ocasio Ruiz, could only have dreamed of as a kid. He used to sing and dance in school talent shows when he was growing up, and while describing some of his performances to me, he breaks into bright, romantic songs that were popular on Spanish-language radio in the early 2000s. “I did the one by David Bisbal, the Spaniard — how did it go? ‘Ave María, ¿cuándo serás mía?’ And Luis Fonsi: ‘No te cambio por ninguna,’ ” he trills, hitting each note. He made his big debut in the third grade, lip-syncing to traditional Puerto Rican boleros while wearing a tiny suit and holding a little guitar. But while he was drawn to music and performing, the plan was always to play soccer professionally.
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone. Crystal-spike choker by Gasoline Glamour.
When Rauw was about seven years old, he was kicking around a soccer ball outside of his school, waiting for his mom to pick him up. Once she arrived, a retired soccer player named Richie Romano approached them and suggested they stop by a small athletic store he owned. Right there, Rauw decided to join a kids’ team Romano coached. They left, but not before Rauw’s mom bought him his first pair of cleats. He slept in them that night. Soccer became his main thrill as a kid, and he took it more seriously as he got a little older. His hero was Cristiano Ronaldo. “I liked how people loved him. And I was like, ‘I want to be him’ — how he maintained his family,” he remembers. “There used to be these videos on YouTube, with these episodes about him, and he had enough money to buy his mom a house, his family, everyone. I just wanted to be him.”
Rauw’s family lived in a small, two-bedroom house in Palma Sola, part of the northern region of Canóvanas in Puerto Rico. The area was in the countryside, mountainous, full of trees, with a creek nearby. The lights went out a lot and the water ran cold, but he’s wistful about how quiet it was. Rauw remembers that his grandfather, Alejandro, would sit on the porch with a guitar, whistling and making up melodies. Rauw thinks those sounds stayed nestled somewhere deep in his subconscious. He shared a room with his older sister most of his life, until the family put up a brittle piece of drywall to divide the space. They’d wake at the crack of dawn to go to school in the nearby city of Carolina, east of San Juan (one of his classmates was the rapper Anuel AA). “I always had a little bit of city, but when I returned home, it was farms,” Rauw says.
Then, when Rauw was about 12, his parents divorced. His mother moved him and his sister to Carolina permanently. She never remarried and rented a small apartment, working around the clock as a government administrator to keep it. That’s when Rauw started to see soccer as a route to take care of her. He attended the University of Puerto Rico at Carolina, and in 2013, he began training in Florida in the hopes of getting drafted to the semi-professional Premier Development League (now USL League Two). His days were long and draining; he would practice for hours on top of working three jobs. Eventually, it became clear his dreams weren’t panning out. Though he’s talked in the past about how a few injuries set him back, he says now that the main issue that ended his soccer career was psychological — the exhaustion and disappointment of pouring everything into something that just wasn’t going to happen.
“When you’re trying so hard to do something and it’s not working out, you get frustrated. Plus, I was having economic issues, personal problems with my family, a lot of stuff,” he says. “My family didn’t have money, and you get to the house, and everyone is fighting: ‘There’s no money, there’s no money.’ Soccer took so much time, and I wasn’t seeing the light.” A few scouts flew him to Europe for a match that didn’t go well, further confirmation the sport wasn’t for him. “It was like, ‘Bro. I know you want to be a soccer player, but you’re not going to be a soccer player.’ ”
Rauw returned to the island, dejected. He kept working in retail — he had jobs at Aldo and Guess and TJ Maxx that he juggled over the years — and worked as a server at weddings. In Florida, he had started to write music as a hobby and was surprised when a roommate encouraged him to put it out. He began spending time at home studios, improvising over gritty, homemade trap beats. Rauw was more of a singer than a rapper, though, and he brought a smoother delivery to the music.
Around that time, he made a Facebook page with some of the songs he’d been working on, and it caught the attention of his future collaborator Mr. NaisGai, who had gone to elementary school with him. “He had a different proposal,” NaisGai says. “In Puerto Rico, what you heard most was reggaeton, and at that moment, Rauw was making R&B with an American flow.”
Something was stirring in Puerto Rico’s underground around the mid-2010s. Artists like Álvaro Diaz and Myke Towers had also found a niche making songs that were influenced by English-language hip-hop and internet culture, and they started releasing them on their own, without label support.
Rauw says their scene ran parallel with another one, made up of trap and reggaeton newcomers like Anuel AA, Bryant Myers, and Ozuna. “We were more like indie underground, more hipsters, more into fashion, Rick Owens,” Rauw says. “The other guys were like reggaeton, cargoes, snapbacks.” Eventually, the two groups merged and began getting love from Puerto Rican veterans, such as De La Ghetto, Arcángel, and Nicky Jam — a big-bang-style collision in Puerto Rican music that led to massive collaborations that reached millions of listeners.
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone. Custom goggles by Gasoline Glamour. Pants by Balmain. Boots by Rick Owens.
Out of all the artists making noise on the island, it was a 25-year-old kid who used to bag groceries at a local Econo supermarket who crash-landed into the mainstream in the biggest way, becoming the mega-star Bad Bunny. Rauw and Bad Bunny actually met in a studio in Carolina during those early years and talked about collaborating one day. When Bad Bunny broke through, Rauw says, he saw the rise as a massive victory. “It didn’t matter who was breaking through first — he creates a door, an open door, to a new movement,” he says. “So if people are fucking with the music, there’s a whole bunch of other artists that are doing the same thing, in their own way.”
Still, Rauw was hitting a wall again. It was 2016, and he was doing local shows. A neighbor gave him the phone number for a manager she knew named Eric Duars, who’d worked with big names in reggaeton, like Zion Y Lennox and De La Ghetto. Rauw reached out but never heard back. Their paths eventually crossed at a giant trap concert, where Rauw was performing with the rapper Rafa Pabón, who introduced them. “And then I waited about another three more months,” Rauw remembers. The wait paid off by the next year: Duars signed him to his label, Duars Entertainment, in January 2017.
Rauw kept collaborating with his peers from the SoundCloud trenches, and for a minute, it seemed he was picking up steam. Then Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, becoming one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the Caribbean. Approximately 3,000 people died, thousands of homes were destroyed, and others didn’t have full power for nearly a year. Making music was out of the question. “If you’re a local artist, when your city stops, you cannot do nothing. You don’t move,” Rauw says, pointing out that rising stars like Bad Bunny might have had more options to record internationally. “But me, Myke Towers, Brray . . . [we] were stuck because we didn’t have the reach. Our reach was the island, and the island was frozen.” It was back to retail: Rauw had started working at Nordstrom and put in a request to be transferred anywhere. He was sent to New Jersey, where he ground out another year. Finally, in 2019, Duars promised him a small salary if he returned to the island and did nothing but crank music out in the studio. Rauw rushed back home.
Spending hours in a studio was just one part of what Rauw was envisioning. He knew he wanted to do something different onstage, something no other act in Puerto Rico was doing. “I was like, ‘There’s no Latin dancer right now,’ ” Rauw says.
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone.
Dance is central to reggaeton; it’s a genre that’s marketed as dance music, after all. Many of the movements associated with reggaeton come from perreo, the inherently Black style of dance that the scholar Katelina “Gata” Eccleston describes as “sex with clothes on” and which represents a history of Black resistance. “Reggaeton repurposed the dance movements in perreo to make them more universal,” she says. Over the years, artists have woven other strains of dance into the genre: Vico C, a rapper who is considered one of the founding fathers of reggaeton, used to bring B-boy flair and hip-hop-inspired choreography to his shows and music videos in the Nineties. Before a knee injury, Randy Ortiz from the duo Jowell & Randy would break into pop-and-lock moves in his early career days, something Rauw loved. Lenny Tavárez and Nio Garcia dance as well, though their scale isn’t as global as Rauw’s.
Puerto Rican pop artists like Chayanne and Ricky Martin, the ones Rauw looked up to as a kid, were also known for high-energy, boy-band-style moves. But Rauw also wanted to channel English-language showmen, particularly Usher, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown. (“Rauw is super influenced by American culture,” Diaz says.) He wanted to do what they were doing, and his admiration was intense — he would even follow the Instagram accounts of background dancers who had worked with Brown.
One of those guys was Burgos, a striking Puerto Rican performer with reddish-brown hair cascading down his back. Born in Bayamón and raised partly in Florida, Burgos did six tours with Brown and had been teaching dance workshops in Puerto Rico. He remembers when Rauw showed up to one of them in 2018, wearing a black T-shirt with Sesame Street’s Count von Count on it: “In walks with this guy with the new wavy look, with the braids,” Burgos recalls. “He was hip, new-school.” People in the class knew who Rauw was, but he wasn’t exactly the star of the group. “It was hard as shit,” Rauw says, laughing.
Burgos’ style of dancing is quick, energetic, and liquid, inspired by everything from hip-hop to funk to salsa. He was apprehensive about choreographing for someone from the reggaeton world at first. “Reggaeton music has the same [rhythmic] pattern every single time. And every time you hear reggaeton, you don’t want to dance — you just want to do perreo the whole time,” he says. But he was drawn to the fact that Rauw was willing to push himself. “He was like, ‘I’m dancing,’ ” Burgos remembers. “The difference between him and everybody else is that he actually was very determined in what he wanted. A lot of people get sucked into that pressure of ‘Oh, I might not be as cool.’ ”
Still, Rauw wasn’t born with the preternatural dance ability of someone like Usher or Timberlake. It was another side of his career that required hours of steadfast commitment. “I had to break him down and I had to build a sense of, like, ‘You need to feel comfortable doing this, and you need to feel comfortable onstage. You need to feel comfortable humping the stage,’ ” Burgos says. That more outrageous, unabashedly provocative choreography is part of the show now, and often what gets fans screaming. Burgos’ wife and collaborative partner, Denise Yuri-Disla, spent more than 10 years dancing for artists like Don Omar and Daddy Yankee, and says they put on “supershows” that often featured as many as 10 to 12 background dancers, almost always women. She adds that the difference is Rauw is up front, interacting with his dancers — his are both male and female — and keeping up with the choreography. “What Rauw and Fefe are doing is a completely different turn. There’s no way you don’t notice the dancers now. There’s always a story happening. They’re saying something,” she explains. “It’s like a Broadway show.”
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone.
Seeing a major reggaeton artist pull off intricate choreography isn’t something an audience can get from a Maluma or J Balvin or Bad Bunny concert or music video; dancing has become a defining characteristic of who Rauw is. Burgos sees him experimenting with even more styles of movement. In Rauw’s recent performance of the song “Desenfocao’,” Burgos encouraged Rauw to try dancing with more flamboyant theatricality, like the Joker.
But while Rauw’s style has added something undeniably new to the genre, some have been critical of its softer edges. We’re sitting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Surfside when Rauw plunges into the knottier, more intrusive parts of fame. “Nowadays, the internet is toxic,” he says. “People exaggerate stuff, and there’s a lot of haters.” He seems to take skepticism in stride, yet over the summer, a feud erupted between him and the reggaeton artist Jhay Cortez, who has dismissed Rauw as a “pop star” and mocked his dancing. Rauw alludes to the tension in our conversation, saying, “I’m at peace with the world. You know, I had a thing with this guy, this artist people know in Puerto Rico.” I ask him who he’s referring to, and he waves his hand dismissively. “I don’t want to mention his name in my interview. But stupid stuff. I don’t care. I’m always gonna be me, I’m always gonna respect my vision.” A pugilistic side comes out, though: “I’m a cool guy, but I’m from Puerto Rico. If you fuck with me, yo soy un gallito de pelea [“I’m like a bird in a cockfight”]. I’m not afraid.”
After we talk, in the days leading up to Christmas, Rauw releases a diss track aimed at Jhay called “Hunter,” outlining Rauw’s banner year. Jhay responds by tweeting an image of a fake death certificate for Rauw, and then releasing the seven-minute song “Enterrauw,” which includes a line calling Rauw out for supporting “that abuser Chris Brown.” During the back and forth, Cortez drops a crude lyric aimed at Rosalía in a leaked remix of the song “Si Pepe.” Rauw later shoots back with “JhayConflei,” a song on SoundCloud that makes several crass references to Cortez’s girlfriend Mia Khalifa’s background as an adult-film actor, though the track soon disappears from the site.
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone. Pants by Alexander McQueen.
Because of the dancing, Rauw has been compared to Brown a lot. “If you see Chris Brown dancing, that guy is crazy. You need to be that level, so I started training and training. Now I can defend myself,” Rauw says. But he’s also a vocal fan of Brown, who’s been a recurring presence in Latin music (he’s collaborated with Prince Royce, and Bad Bunny brought him onstage during 2018’s La Nueva Religion Tour).
In September, Rauw jumped on “Nostálgico,” a single by the Jamaican artist Rvssian featuring Brown. Despite some criticism, Rauw says people in the music industry wrote to congratulate him — a response that reflects the industry’s continued ambivalence toward Brown, who has been accused of assault multiple times since his highly public attack on Rihanna in 2009. Over the years, this topic has filtered into reggaeton: Rappers like Anuel AA have drawn criticism for collaborating with Tekashi 6ix9ine, while more recently, Farruko was condemned for using an R. Kelly sample. “That’s a really delicate subject,” Rauw says carefully when I ask about this. “I grew up with women. Women are my inspiration. I respect women. Everything against women, I’m like, ‘No.’ At the same time, my mom taught me to forgive people, to be sensitive, to try to listen, and not to live with resentment. Living with hard feelings is bad, it’s like a poison. I don’t defend anyone. I’m not a lawyer. But I also don’t judge people.”
Rauw’s music is decidedly apolitical. He has his personal feelings about the injustices Puerto Rico has experienced, telling me at one point, “Puerto Rico suffers a lot, man, starting with the government. El gobierno sucks.” But he doesn’t get involved in questions about statehood or politics on the island. “I don’t know a lot about politics,” he says. “I probably could be a little bit ignorant, but it’s just not in me.”
While Bad Bunny and Residente have used their music to deliver scathing critiques of the government, Rauw says he’s “not that type of artist.” He seems to go back and forth, though, a little uncertain. “I think God sends people to do different jobs,” he says, but adds he would support movements with artists fighting for the island. “If I need to be there to represent my island and my people, I’ll do it.” His home, he says, is still his main inspiration, and he sees his job as making music for Puerto Ricans.
His personal life plays a role in his music, and fans are particularly interested in how he factors in his relationship with Rosalía. “There’s people that love drama, and we’re not like that,” Rauw says. “There’s a bunch of pop stars where it’s like the whole telenovela, and I hate that shit. I really hate that shit. We’re real stuff. We’ve been together for a while.”
He won’t say how long “a while” is. Fans have speculated they first crossed paths during the 2019 Latin Grammys, though the couple kept things under the radar in the beginning. I ask him when they met, and he starts to say “20 . . .” but catches himself quickly. “I can’t say,” he says with a laugh. They finally went public with the relationship after paparazzi shot them holding hands outside of a sceney West Hollywood restaurant. “We saw all the paparazzi, and I was like ‘Yo. What are we gonna do?’ And she told me, ‘You know what? I’m tired of this shit.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’ It felt right, so we went down, holding hands at the restaurant. What do you want me to say? Yeah, we’re together.”
The relationship has had a subtle but distinct influence on Rauw’s music. Last winter, he spoke to Rolling Stone and mentioned Rosalía without sharing that they were dating, saying only that she brought her production skills to “Dile a El,” the first song off Afrodisíaco. Now, he admits sheepishly, “Yeah, we were together.” She also helped with the album’s second song, “Strawberry Kiwi.” “I said, ‘I need top lines, I’m kind of stuck with this,’ and she sat with me and did a crazy top line,” Rauw remembers. He notes that he’s also been there to float ideas around for her projects. “We respect each other. That’s the main thing,” he says. “We’re not focused on doing music together. If it happens, yeah, of course. We plan to do it, but it’s not going to happen now.” (About Rosalía’s highly anticipated new album, Motomami, he offers, “It’s amazing, it’s amazing. When I heard the whole album, phewww. She’s a GOAT. She’s innovative. She’s creating new sounds.”)
Photograph by Ruvén Afanador for Rolling Stone. Cape by Saint Laurent. Pants by Roberto Cavalli. Boots by SWEAR.
While accepting an award at LOS40 Music Awards in Spain last fall, he kissed her onstage and called her “his muse.” Still, he’s quick to dispel the notion that everything he writes is directly about her. “Not all the songs are about her specifically. She can be my muse, but she inspires me in different ways: sounds, production-wise, not literally. People get confused. Right now, if I put out a sad song, it doesn’t have anything to do with my personal life,” he explains. He does make one admission: A gauzy ballad called “Aquel Nap ZzZz,” sprinkled with bolero swatches and snippets of Rosalía’s signature vocals, was inspired by their relationship. “That one is literally for her.”
The music on Trap Cake Vol. 2 is a little different: “I’m trying some new deliveries, how I sing, rap, more weird melodies, pitch. It’s really underground, it’s explicit, but it has a sweet side,” Rauw says. He has started to handle a lot of the production himself, tinkering with Ableton and learning more about building songs. Recently, he started an Instagram account under @akaelzorro, the name he uses when he’s credited as a producer. “No one understands what’s in your head, so it’s easier for you to do it than explain to somebody,” he says.
He sees production as a potential next step in his career. “When I retire — well, not retire, but maybe have a stop — I probably want to produce for more people,” he says. The idea of retiring is distant, though. He’s achieved a lot of what he planned: His music is playing in nearly every corner of the globe. He’s become the performer he wanted to be. And his mom no longer has to work all the time; instead, she gets to travel with him when she can.
But even so, he feels like he has to keep the momentum in his career going. “I think my family, being hard workers . . . it makes me be like them. I just want to be a hard worker all the time,” he says. He does think about a day when he can just take a break for as long as he wants. “A moment will come where I’ll be like, ‘I just want to take a year off.’ On Jan. 1, I’ll look at the ceiling and say, ‘What the fuck am I going to do today?’ I have nothing until Dec. 31.” But then he starts laughing at the absurdity of it. “One day, one day.”
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