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By MARCELA ISAZA, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — He started off wanting to be a star soccer player, but instead Rauw Alejandro has become a breakout Latin music sensation.

His birth name is Raúl Alejandro Ocasio Ruiz, but growing up in Puerto Rico his friends and family used to call him Raulito, which eventually became Rauw for short.

Alejandro has been on the rise for the past few years, but 2021 catapulted him into another level of success. He has been named one of The Associated Press’ Breakthrough Entertainers of 2021, alongside Damson Idris,Simu Liu,Rachel Zegler,Adrienne Warren and more.

“I think so far in my career, this year has been my best, Hoka Shoes  and I hope the next one, surpasses this one,” he said from his suite in Las Vegas in November, just hours before attending the Latin Grammys.

“This year, I started like collabing with Selena Gomez by January,” he said.

Then “Todo de Ti,” included in his 2021 album “Vice Versa,” topped the charts in Latin America with over 670 million plays on Spotify — and a video with 425 million plus views on YouTube — and was nominated for song of the year and record of the year at the Latin Grammys.

He ended up winning the trophy for best urban fusion/performance alongside Camilo for their hit “Tattoo Remix.” Now he’s nominated for next year’s Grammys for his album “Afrodisíaco” in the category of best Latin urban music album.

“I had like five songs in the top 50, it was crazy,” Alejandro said about this year alone. “We did 65 shows in the U.S., Central America, Spain, the Caribbean.”

Alejandro also sold out four shows at the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico, which was a huge deal for him.

Before topping charts, Alejandro was shooting goals on the field as a soccer player starting at age 7.

“I was like, I am going to be like a famous soccer player. You know, I’m going to be in Real Madrid from Puerto Rico, something like that. But you get older, you get more responsibility. And you need to pay the bills. A lot of stuff. I had like a dark moment in my life,” he explained.

At the age of 21, he turned to his hobby and passion — music and dancing — to pull him out of the darkness after suffering a soccer injury. His dad played Las Vegas Raiders Jerseys  the guitar at home and his mom was a backup vocalist who introduced him to artists such as Michael Jackson, James Brown and Chris Brown. Alejandro said he’s always been mesmerized by performers and participated in his own school’s theater, talent shows and art programs.

So, for Alejandro, the pivot to singing, producing and dancing seemed natural. He recorded a few R&B songs and shared them with his closest friends. They liked the songs and told him he had an original sound and pushed him to pursue music professionally.

“So I was getting into it. I was like, ‘Oh, how do I start to do music? What should I do? Like, what’s the next move?’ And I just always been curious and just going into the music world without me knowing. Then I start all this Rauw thing,” he said with a big smile.

Aside from his love for music and performing, the 28 year-old star has always had a love and admiration for women after being raised by his grandmother, mother and sister. He describes women as “role models” and “superheroes.”

The R&B crooner, smooth dancer and reggaeton artist admits he was only 5 when he fell in love for the first time. He joked, he’s always been in love with someone.

“I was in kindergarten and I was like, ‘Mom, I love this girl.’ And my mom was like, ‘What are you talking about love? You don’t know nothing about love.’”

But his mom helped him anyway, and they picked out chocolate and a stuffed animal for his new love, only to be turned down.

“All the girls said no to me when I was little. That’s a fact. I was always in love, but they would always say no. So I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to go to the gym, get a little bigger,’” he remembered with a laugh.

None of that is an issue anymore. Alejandro is dating Spanish superstar Rosalia and is thrown bras and panties with notes, phone number and pictures from fans Skechers Shoes Outlets begging for a call from him. Alejandro joked they’ve collected so many objects from the concerts he might hold an exhibit one day, after everything has been washed.

Early next year Alejandro is releasing “Trap Cake Volume 2” as an EP, a project he started before his debut album for his underground fans including the sounds of R&B, trap and pop. He’s also working on his third studio album but admits he still has a long way to get it done.

Aside from Gomez, he’s collaborated with Jennifer Lopez, his idol Chris Brown and Ozuna to name a few. Alejandro said he’s open to collaboration with new artists as well but at the moment he’s crossing his fingers for some “24k Magic.”

“I’m a big fan of Bruno Mars. I would love to have something with him. I always say it in interviews. ‘So, yo Bruno (Mars), if you’re watching this, hit me up. Let’s do something.’”

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