Pitbull: Better Than Nas

pitbull.jpg
I should probably stop using this picture, huh?

When virtually every circa-2006 street-rapper does club-rap, it sounds like a chore, like the sort of self-consciously pandering garbage that might help him move a couple more units even as it dilutes the hardness of his coke-talk. When Pitbull does club-rap, it sounds like there's nothing in the world he'd rather be doing. He's got this rapid patter that always threatens to run off the rails completely and spin off into pure nonverbal expression. On damn near every verse, he gets progressively fired-up and then suddenly switches over from English to Spanish, like English is just structurally unable to transmit the freakiness he wants to get through to you. A few of his songs don't even have verses or choruses in the traditional sense; they just spin between rhymes and chants and instrumental bits, figuring out their own logical progression. Take "Jealoso," probably the best Neptunes track since the "Drop It Like It's Hot" remix. It starts out with Pitbull rapping calmly over pinging congas and accordion farts, honoring the time-tested Southern rap tradition of telling girls to dance, muttering a hook about how you should make them girls jealosa and them boys jealoso. At the beginning of the second verse, he does his trademark scream ("Wheeee-yoo!") but keeps everything contained, like he's really doing his best to make a regular rap song. But then this wobbly bassline comes in and he just says fuck it and abandons the structure completely, chanting little call-and-response riffs that are either Spanish or total gibberish, and the song really finds its liftoff. That's the thing about Pitbull: he doesn't need words (or English words anyway; I should learn some Spanish) to make music.

Pitbull gets identified with reggaeton a lot, but there's no reggaeton on El Mariel, his astoundingly great new album. He raps in Spanish and all, but he's no more reggaeton than he is dancehall or Miami bass. He's got a wide-open ear, and he'll rap over anything that might conceivably move an ass or two. Two years ago, he became the first prominent American rapper to embrace grime when he dropped a quick freestyle over Lethal Bizzle's "Forward (Pow)," still the single best track that the entire grime scene has ever produced. On El Mariel, Pitbull and his producers grab little bits and pieces of dancefloor alchemy from all over. "Fuego" is basically Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music" with extra drums and lyrics about how you're not a gangsta. "Come See Me" is the millionth clone of DJ Toomp's beat for "What You Know" that Toomp has churned out this year, but it jacks the regal horns from Hector Lavoe's "La Murga de Panama" to class up its epic boom. "Que Tu Sanes D'Eso" actually interpolates "What You Know" without sounding anything like it. And "Hey You Girl" grabs the bassline from the B-52s' "Rock Lobster," of all things, so Pitbull can yell about partying. That last one especially sounds like a terrible idea, a tone-deaf and clueless cash-grab forged in the fires of crossover hell. But Pitbull makes it work, seizing on the joy in that propulsive snap and using it for his own purposes.

In this XXL blog, he writes about his love for Latin freestyle and Miami bass and his apprenticeship under Luther Campbell. And he admits that he's not doing the same thing as fellow Miami rappers Trick Daddy and Rick Ross: "I think out of all of us, I'm really the one that sticks to his roots the most, in terms of the music that we grew up off."

Pitbull talks about dealing coke, but he mostly just says that he's glad he doesn't have to do it anymore. He talks hard, but he never sounds the least bit interested in following through with his threats. For him, music is an escape, and not an escape in the Rick Ross money-porn sense. His music feels physical in ways that hardly any recent rap does. Rap these days is about abstraction, about mythical rags-to-riches stories, impossibly hard characters rising to the top of the world by staying hard, by never talking to police, by being smarter and tougher than the other guy. But Pitbull's music isn't about dominance; it's about sweaty, messy human interaction. He calls girls girls (or sometimes broads) instead of bitches, which is what passes for chivalry in rap. He doesn't hate everybody, and he doesn't talk about climbing up on the backs of others.

But there's conflict in there, too. Pitbull is a Miami Cuban, part of that scary but important voting bloc that gets all apoplectic whenever the American government does anything that could be considered a capitulation to Castro. The album is named after the mass 1980 boatlift from Cuba to Florida. Immediately after Castro turned over control of the Cuban government to his brother, Pitbull recorded the celebratory non-album track "Ya Se Acabo (It's Over)": "No more risking their life for freedom / I'm hoping he's dead cuz we don't need him." On the album cover, he wraps himself in the Cuban flag and stares forlornly across the ocean. Pitbull was born in 1981, immediately after the Mariel boatlift, and he's got an overcoming-adversity story that a lot of rappers would envy. But whenever he tries to get contemplative, he sounds weirdly lost: "I feel like Keanu Reeves in the movie Devil's Advocate / Confused but blessed with extravagance." It's like he can't wait to get back to dancing.

I meant to write this column last week, but CMJ got in the way. And it probably doesn't matter now because everyone forgets about rap albums after they've been out for a week if they even notice their existence at all. El Mariel came out last Tuesday and sold 50,000 albums in its first week, enough to top Billboard's Independent chart (he's on TVT) but not enough to crack the top ten of the actual list. The first single, "Bojangles," was pretty great, but it had a shitty low-budget video that only got Rap City play for about a week. It also had the Ying Yang Twins rapping on it, and nobody cares about them anymore. We're going to get a ton of big-news fourth-quarter rap albums over the next two months, and the world is probably going to forget about El Mariel if they haven't already. That's a shame. It's one of the best rap albums of the year.

Voice review: Scott Seward on Pitbull's Unleashed, Vol. 3


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