Pessimists, beware: Spending time with Ricky Martin these days involves a megadose of high-octane positivity. "Look at that view—it's so liberating!" exclaims Martin, taking in New York City's Central Park from the 51st floor of the Manhattan high-rise where he owns a condo. For Martin, even the chatty local doormen are cause for enthusiasm. "They're great," says the singer, clad in jeans, sneakers and a vintage Cheap Trick T-shirt. "If I'm gone for a while, they say to me, 'Where have you been!?' "

Good question. This month the 33-year-old star releases Life, a highly personal album he calls "pure honesty, pure vulnerability." His first English-language CD in five years, the work reflects his quest to live la vida low-key since exploding onto the pop scene in 1999 with his self-titled. 7-million-selling smash. The global music tinged Life" is a detachment from old habits and old ways of thinking that were perhaps a little destructive for me," he says. "Because when you work, work, work, something is wrong. You need to chill. You need to step aside and see where you've been, where you are now and where you want to be."

So Martin took stock. He traveled the globe, chatting with locals and seeking spiritual enlightenment. He also pitched in with relief efforts alter the southeast Asian tsunami and dedicated himself to the Ricky Martin Foundation, a nonprofit group he founded to help combat the trafficking of people, especially children (see box). Gone was the go-go lifestyle he had been leading since joining Latin boy-band Menudo at age 12—a workaholic tendency that he says was born out of "this necessity of being accepted. I sold 60, 70 million copies and that's beautiful. But is that success?"

Martin now says that the fame and fortune he experienced in the late '90s left him feeling "bored" and embittered. "There was a moment [in '02] when I was onstage and I was just so angry," he says. "I thought, 'Something is wrong. I have the applause, I have a great band behind me, I live comfortably.' "What was missing? "Gratitude," he says. "I was starting to become a victim of fame. Everything was too serious and I wasn't enjoying it."

And so, soon afterward, he quit the stage, grabbed his passport and began his journey (see box). Along the way he completed work on Life, borrowing elements of regional musical styles discovered during his travels. Now back in the U.S. and dividing his time between his homes in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the single Martin says he "can't wait" to return to the stage for his Latin American tour this fall. (He'll hit the U.S. next spring.) Nowadays, "when I freak out, I say to myself, 'Dude! Relax! Just write 10 things you are grateful for,' " he says. "And I write down: 'I can see. I have a house. I have friends.' And in one minute I have 10 things. We have to keep it simple."

Michelle Tauber. Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Natasha Stoynoff.