Future music historians may look back at Prince Royce's Phase II as the moment when bachata and R&B finally succumbed to the rhythms of their own satiny slow dance and fully, blissfully merged. It's a union the two pop styles have been tiptoeing around for years, as the Dominican dance form has evolved from its rural roots as a politicized underdog born out of bolero and merengue (among other forms) into a slick urban pop genre and global phenomenon. Over the years, young Dominican Americans in New York took up the genre and tucked in bits of other music they loved -- including hip-hop, pop and R&B -- until they'd created the urban bachata movement that's given us crossover stars like Aventura, Romeo Santos and Toby Love.
But it's arguably Prince Royce who has always been most bent on erasing the ever-finer line between R&B and bachata in particular, on making their two souls -- or two brands of soul -- become one. After all, this is a guy who grew up wanting to be a pop/R&B star first (before turning to bachata), and whose first big single was a bachata-fied cover of " Stand by Me." His self-titled 2010 debut sketched out the many things the two genres have in common: smooth beats, an undying interest in sexy love stories in club settings, a friendliness with hip-hop and dance pop styles, and, especially, feathery-fine but soulful vocals crooned with the intimacy of sweet nothings in your ear. And really, Royce is the perfect matchmaker: he sings like Usher, pitches woo like Bruno Mars and works the sultriest bachata shuffle this side of Santo Domingo.
Phase II picks up where his award-winning, multi-platinum debut left off, lining up the slickly produced, urban-edged, pop-friendly ballads and slow jams with a bachata soul. Here, Royce draws us into plaintively crooned, breathlessly intimate bachata (see "Mi Habitacion," a throbbing theater of pleading vocals, plaintive guitars and swelling strings staged over hip-twitching bachata rhythms). There, he dips us into satiny smooth sweet-talking and sexy, scratchy vocals that would be equally at home in an R&B slow jam (see the intense, piano-driven intro to "Te Me Vas"). And just about everywhere, it spins us into a world where the line between mainstream and Latin urban doesn't quite exist: the contemplative electric guitar that opens "Eres Tú," for instance, flows seamlessly into the plinking, popping bird-like trills of bachata guitar that govern most of the track -- and Royce's husky whisper weaves it all together. Meanwhile, "Hecha Para Mi," with its powder-puff ah's, insistent yeah-yeah-yeah's and love-drunk serenading, reimagines a pop music history in which Ne-Yo and Michael Jackson (at least their slow jam-slinging selves) moonlighted as Latin pop stars.
Don't mistake Royce's interest in hybridization as simply selling out bachata to the crossover gods, however. He's still very much a dedicated bachatero, swooning and swaying along with the flowing rhythmic currents of those familiar bolero guitars and palpitating beats, and incorporating plenty of not-so-mainstream stylistic elements (like all those shivering synth-strings, a Latin pop staple). In fact, most of Phase II's awkward moments occur when the Prince steps too far outside his own R&Bachata realm: the solid (if generic), straight-up dance pop effort "It's My Time," for instance, is home to some of Royce's blandest vocals and most uninspired lyrics (it's basically a graduation anthem with a beat). And the sunny, morning-after, acoustic-ish coffee-shop jam "Addicted" (Phase II's lead single) is an intoxicating but perplexing blend of nutrition-information metaphors (that somehow come off as sexy), stalkerish obsession (that somehow comes off as sweet) and generally syrupy lyrics that will send you either running to or screaming from your boo.
In general, where Prince Royce dabbled in hip-hop swagger (remember the pants track?), Phase II is all about the romance, baby -- which is probably not a bad thing, considering how awkward that pants track was. But at the same time, nothing here delivers quite the provocative-familiar punch that "Stand by Me" did. In fact, Phase II can sometimes feel heavy with saccharine, a little weighted down by Royce's attempts to balance it out and appeal to many audiences at once, coming off as almost too polite and affable. But he's charming enough, not to mention one hell of a sexy-sweet crooner in his own quiet way, to keep us listening as he fine-tunes his master matchmaking plan for the joint future of R&B and bachata.