It's good to be the king...of salsa. But it's taken some fancy crossover moves and an English-language hit to get America talking about Marc Anthony.

Before considering the ”crossover” question, it’s useful to note that Marc Anthony is probably the first major salsa star who ever had to fine-tune his Spanish.

Both the singer-actor’s parents are Puerto Rican, but he was born and raised in New York City, and began performing en espanol only in 1991, after starting out doing all-American dance music. ”Learning the lyrics and singing them was no problem,” recalls Anthony of his initial immersion into tropical genres. ”But my God, it was the most exhausting thing, those press conferences at seven in the morning in places like Colombia where you couldn’t even make a reference in English to cover your butt because they wouldn’t get it. But I’m a quick learner” — he snaps his fingers for emphasis — ”and now it’s second nature.” Still, when the world’s preeminent salsero converses in Spanish, he thinks first in English, then translates in his head. ”Which probably explains my migraines.”

Something else gives Anthony a headache, or at least puts a bristle in his otherwise famously mild manner, and that’s the C-word.

Nearly everyone — his new label, Sony’s Columbia Records, included — is calling the just-released Marc Anthony his first English-language album. It isn’t, though the album he made en ingles for Atlantic back in 1990 is so obscure even he can’t find a copy. Anyway, Anthony’s not eager to be lumped into any Latin crossover trend with Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, et al. —”at all,” he emphasizes. ”I started out singing in English, so what am I crossing over to? That makes it sound like I’m trying my hand at somebody else’s music. But I’m just as American as I am Puerto Rican. This is my music as much as anybody else’s.”

The ”this” in question is the new album’s angelically sung adult-contemporary pop. You’d be hard-pressed to hear the salsa influence in most of these songs, produced by pros who’ve worked with Mariah Carey. The 31-year-old says he grew up listening to Billy Joel, Air Supply, and Asia, and his record is so loaded with synth-laden ballads, the idea that Latin music’s favorite ’90s son might’ve been into Toto before Tito Puente seems credible.

But the album does have a few hotter spots, and there is a Latin influence in the tense corker Columbia chose as the first single, ”I Need to Know,” which is in Billboard’s top 10. The video conjures a scene straight out of L.A.’s Conga Room. So between this first exposure and the media’s Latin-rabid state, Anthony should just resign himself to ”cross” talk and buy aspirin in bulk.

His immediate schedule sounds like a hemorrhage waiting to happen. We mention we saw part of his itinerary on Sony’s website; he retorts that ”they don’t post most of it, because people would call the Humane Society.” Tomorrow, he will do 122 quickie interviews for a press junket promoting Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, in which he plays a significant role. The following week, to celebrate the release of Marc Anthony, he’ll do autograph sessions in Miami, New York, and L.A. within a 15-hour period.

Leaping ahead, Anthony plans to make another film at year’s beginning, tour toward Y2K’s end, and in between record two albums—one a return to salsa, one a move into Spanish-language pop. This all sounds like, if you’ll pardon the allusion, livin’ la vida overload.

But it may not be too much effort to ask if Anthony is to fulfill his bilingual manifest destiny. As his friend Ruben Blades says: “Right now, with the impact of world music, he has the whole world in front of him. And as long as you have integrity, you’re gonna try for the world—why not?” Many admirers see his potential as not anything so ephemeral as the new Ricky but—what with The New York Times writing about a “sense that he might just be the real thing, somebody who could compete with the great pop figures of the century”—something much more like a new Sinatra.

“Whoo,” says Anthony, emitting a breath of humility. He’s heard the Sinatra comparison before, but makes clear he’s not worthy. “It’s the ultimate compliment. But, I don’t believe it. It comes from being skinny and young and a singer who makes movies.”

Not to mention a singer who turns men into silly putty even as their wives ball their panties into stage-bound projectiles—not just because of his chiseled cheekbones but because of the astonishing power and clarity of his voice. As a Prada-clad salsero, he has twice sold out Madison Square Garden, in scenes that recalled the salad days of hysterical bobby-soxers. And it’s not even that his presence is so electrifying; notoriously sweet and unassuming off stage, he doesn’t turn into a hip-thrusting male diva in the spotlight. It’s how, in his salsa stuff, he starts out calmly, then builds the music into exultant crescendos—pure sex, if you will, yet chaste and high-class. That voice, says former producer Sergio George, is “silky, but it bites; it’s a locomotive dressed in velvet.”

Salsa wasn’t a first love, but second nature. The youngest of eight kids born to an emigre musician father, Marco Antonio Muniz grew up in Spanish Harlem hating the music he’d later revolutionize. “My older brothers listened to salsa, and my parents used to play the old bolero music, and I shunned both. When your friends would be over, you’d be like ‘Turn that off! God, that old-people music thing.’ But when the time came for me to perform these songs, it was the most natural thing.” His “Damascus road” experience was hearing balladeer Juan Gabriel’s “Hasta Que Te Conoci” and feeling oddly certain he should remake it—which he did, albeit with the passionate climaxes that became his hallmark.

There was a detour: The Capeman, Paul Simon’s ill-fated, underrated Broadway pop opera. Leading man Anthony sang its doo-wop numbers so beautifully you got the feeling he could single-handedly revive that genre if he set his mind to it. “I went back and listened to [the still-unreleased] cast album a month ago; I was scared to, like, Do I want to revisit that place? But it’s a musical masterpiece.” Simon subsequently wanted to take the cast on a national concert tour, but, in the toughest dinner meeting of his life, Anthony turned Simon down. “I can’t say I didn’t feel bad, because my instinct is to be there for a friend. But I’d just signed with [Columbia], and had to think about the new people in my life who are believing in me. And America’s first exposure to me would have been a little warped.”

Much of America’s first exposure will instead come via this month’s Bringing Out the Dead, which could also be warping, since Anthony plays a dreadlocked, blood-spattered homeless guy—”the soul of the movie,” per Scorsese. Anthony’s also meeting with a director about what might become his first lead film role—if you don’t count the never-released East Side Story. “Let’s start with Hackers,” Anthony suggests, laughing. Well, there was that, and his The Substitute gangbanger, and his Big Night waiter.

He’s still waiting for his From Here to Eternity. But first there’s the matter of redirecting his music. After he split acrimoniously with RMM Records last year (where he made his most dynamic salsa records, 1996’s Todo a Su Tiempo and 1997’s Contra la Corriente) and signed with Columbia for releases in both languages, it wasn’t clear what form his English re-debut would take. “It’s a delicate balance,” says Sony Music Entertainment chairman Tommy Mottola. “You want to be careful not to interfere with the credibility of what he is, since he’s like a god of that kind of [Latin] music. So we took our time and went through a few experiments.”

The singer is emphatic that the surfeit of supremely romantic balladry he finally included in Marc Anthony—which has disappointed some usually supportive reviewers—is really him. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “My God, I don’t have the time nor the energy to live up to some persona…. I understand what it is to be vulnerable, and I understand what it is to be strong. So anybody who bashes ‘sentimental’ is missing it. I’ve seen the toughest guys in the world cry. That macho thing is an old folktale. I’m not afraid of it at all.”

Certainly the pop world is lacking for unashamed romantics who can sing their way out of a hat. But it’s the album’s scarcer upbeat, Latin-tinged songs that are grabbing people. And not coincidentally, it’s those tunes Anthony describes as capturing his mind-set. “If you could look into my head, with what I’ve been doing for the past eight years, plus my influences growing up, you’d hear an ‘I Need to Know,’ which has a little bit of everything. If you could just live there for a second, that’s what it sounds like.” If Anthony ever stops drawing a dividing line between his Spanish and English careers, and we get to spend an entire album in that melting pot in his head, la revolucion may really get under way.