Pitbull: America's savviest party starter?
In radio-rap today, there are only a few roles for male artists to occupy. There’s the loverman sing-rap hybrid of Drake and J. Cole; the joyfully ossified gangsta boasts of Rick Ross; and whatever it is that Lil Wayne is up to lately (coffeshop crooner?).
Pitbull is something else entirely. The silver-tongued Cuban American rapper, who plays Staples Center with Enrique Iglesias on Thursday, made a reputation as the third-verse scene-stealer of crunk in the early 2000s in Lil Jon’s stable. But that caveman-on-vodka-Red Bull sound always seemed an odd match for his flow -- funny, self-aware, breezy yet syllable-packed. A few midcareer records dealt more frankly with his political and cultural exile in Miami, atop more orthodox Southern rap, but melded it with the big Latin brass and bass music of his hometown.
In recent years, however, he’s nailed down one of the most ubiquitous and malleable sounds on radio today -- the dance-pop lecher you always swear you won’t take home from the club (yet always do anyway). Pop radio is pretty much a ladies-only matriarchy of Queens, but Pitbull might be its rakish Duke.
“I’ve always made club records, but I made mixtapes too,” he said, leaning into a couch in an upstairs lobby at the Hollywood W hotel. “But now that the club is what everyone’s doing, it’s like ‘What’s next?' "
His chart-topping single “Give Me Everything,” was a sleeper pick for Summer Song 2011 (in a summer where there was no consensus choice). Produced by Afrojack, who's rapidly becoming a star in his own right, it’s a perfectly executed Europhile track that, for all the earnestness of Ne-Yo’s chorus, is undermined by Pit’s club-prowler verses and unerring knack for sticky melody.
It's an auspicious start for his album “Planet Pit,” and for all its future-cosmopolitan imagery, it makes a subtly convincing argument for the man born Armando Pérez as a long-run radio staple -- hook-savvy, party-hearty without always being frivolous, completely adaptable to different sounds and perhaps, more important, an ambassador between the rapid-fire Spanglish of a changing young population and the dominant trends of top 40. In the last two years, he's released both his first Spanish-language album and had a No. 1 mainstream hit in English that went just as big in Europe.
While his turn to Continental dance-pop is definitely a response to commercial trends, Pitbull might have a better claim to the sound than most. First-generation dance music was often indebted to Latin percussion, and anyone who’s seen Pitbull live knows that he always has at least two drummers in tow with his band, a rarity in contemporary rap.
“I try to bring a different energy to live shows, something you rarely see in the genre,” he said. “People around the world want to see it performed live, to make it an event."
And his Miami hometown has always been, well, a place of scurrilous international transaction. That goes doubly for its music -- the booty-bass of 2 Live Crew, the Afro-Cuban jazz traditions and the Ibiza imports of the Winter Music Conference.
“Miami’s a special city. There’s a real focus on nightlife. People come here wanting what they’ve seen on ‘Scarface,' ” Pitbull said. “When you go overseas and tell people you’re from Miami, they become really intrigued.”
But while Pitbull will never be given to making any “Best Rapper Alive” claims (“R.I.P., uh, Big and Pac /That, he's not, but damn he's hot," he riffs on the steely neo-house track "I Know You Want Me [Calle Ocho]"). But he’s better than his pop success might suggest -- quick with a punchline, a knack for making his verses feel catchier than a song’s chorus, and a kind of perpetual cackle that lets everyone know he’s having a blast.
His newer single “International Love,” with a typically glossed-out chorus by Chris Brown, stays largely on message and doesn’t quite hit the anthemic heights of his others, but still proves a deft ear for taking the club culture’s temperature and ensuring that he’ll be at the center of it.
Rapping as a craft has been pretty much demolished on pop radio (instead thriving in an Internet mixtape underground). Pitbull’s career arc has made him a pop star who happens to rap. But for a guy whose current hit asks audiences to “give me everything tonight,” he seems to know exactly what to offer in exchange.
-- August Brown
Photo: Pitbull. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.