A typical Pitbull holiday snap
Sooner or later we all accept the inevitability of a life featuring Pitbull. It begins in irony, maybe drunkenly dancing to "Timber" on a night out, then suddenly you find yourself alone late at night, typing "Danza Kuduro" into YouTube in incognito mode.
You’re not alone. Pitbull, for all his gormlessness, outranked Drake on last year’s hip-hop rich list. A lot of people are actually buying his music. Over the last five years the man has achieved chart ubiquity, guesting on tracks by Neyo, Chris Brown, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and the redoubtable Afrojack. He is, metaphorically, giant.
Pitbull’s music fuses rap, retirement cruise tango and the kind of party anthems you hear on fairground rides just as the regret sets in. While around him hip-hop parodies itself, travesties itself and moves in scary new directions, Pitbull preaches the old-fashioned gospel of international air travel, vodka shots and sex with bigbootied ladies. On WhoSampled.com, his entry is 14 pages long: Pitbull is music's most prolific cannibal, hijacking hooks from Aha and Mickey and Sylvia. His most recent album title, Global Warming, was criticised as tasteless. It spawned Global Warming: Meltdown Edition, and is followed this month with a new album, called Globalization.
Pitbull’s music taught me all the Spanish I know; phrases like “Si es verdad que tu eres guapa. Yo te voy a poner a gozar.” What does it mean? It means: “It is true that you are beautiful. I want to give you sexual pleasure.” Then there's “culo”, which means “ass”. (Pitbull has played as much of a part as Nicki Minaj in ushering in the Age of the Anaconda.) His catchphrase is “dale”, which loosely means “go for it” in Spanish. It's basically the “YOLO” of Hispanic pop.
(Still from "Timber" featuring Kesha)
Few rappers take the tropes of economic and sexual excess so seriously as Pitbull, who stuffs each track with brand endorsements. He unabashedly rhymes "Kodak" with "Kodak", because they pay him to do so, and in interviews he knocks back "Volitos" made from straight limejuice and Voli, a brand of vodka he represents. Pitbull has yet to invent an energy drink in the 50 Cent mold, but the day will inevitably come when the world can drink PitJuice, or maybe even PitWater.
What I find to be one of Pitbull’s most endearing traits is his lack of obvious star quality. He rarely appears without sunglasses, and even in videos the camera shies away from his face, preferring to focus on the underdressed female dancers, who often appear alone, gyrating in glittering selfcontained worlds as though the director knows having Pitbull in the same shot will ruin their sex appeal. There’s also something heartrendingly desperate about lyrics like this, from “Give Me Everything”:
“I might drink a little more than I should tonight. I might take you home with me if I could, tonight.”
Pitbull’s words position him in a constant cycle of attempted seduction, rarely certain of success. Sometimes in those videos there’s a disbelief to Pitbull’s face, the look of the guy everywhere who knows he’s punching above his weight. Seated between naked women and magnums of champagne, he'll often grin innocently at the camera. He hover hands his dancers and awkwardly grinds against Kesha – his face knowing that in any other situation they would sadly have nothing to do with him.
It has been speculated that Pitbull has never actually had sex, despite the fact he has six children, the Pitlings. This might be because he only seems capable of talking about sex in bombastic hip-hop tropes like “Face down, booty up”, and leaves his suit on even in the underwater scenes of the "Timber" video.
Pitbull is that guy you meet at the end of the night who comes on a bit too strong and whose cologne is that little bit too overpowering (his fragrance line, “Pitbull For Man” – also available in a variation for ladies – contains notes of bergamot, mandarin, sage and violet).
Most of his fans are mature women, as one 2012 profile shows. In "Rain Over Me" he claims that “40 is the new 30”, and "Drinks for You" – a song even blander than Pitbull is usually able to muster – is a paean to single mothers. Pitbull might be the first rapper to openly target the middle class, even middle-aged female listener, deliberately walking the line between female adoration and female objectification (“Your man just left / I’m the plumber tonight / Let me check your pipes / Oh, you’re the healthy type”).
(Another still from "Timber", there are so many good ones)
This pick-up artist approach translates into a flashy, aggressively starchy style of dress: suits so white they might blind you, trousers cut tight on the crotch and high in the waist, hiked under the armpits like a 1920s gangster. Under stage lights, his skin takes on a curiously rubbery quality: he is bald and bland as a waxwork. Most of Pitbull’s feeling is conveyed in his energetic left eyebrow, raised as if to imply that Pitbull is in on his own joke, that joke being his entire life.
But beyond the onstage thrusting, the self-aggrandisement and multiple titles (“Mr Worldwide”, ‘Mr International”, “Mr 305”), Pitbull anticipates your criticism. Attempts to trash Pitbull or to spin him into comedy usually turn into circle jerks: the point of greatest resistance comes immediately before conversion. A 2012 competition to get Pitbull to appear in the branch of Walmart with the most votes was hijacked, with the intention of exiling Pitbull to Alaska. Except that, upon hearing the news, he made a video accepting the challenge and gamely flew to Kodiak, Alaska, where he was presented with keys to the city and some bear repellant.
Pitbull withstands sabotage, criticism, ridicule, humour. Pitbull is eternal.
It's very hard to dislike Pitbull. You have to give him points for trying. The performance at this year’s World Cup was vintage Pitbull, triggering media fascination and the Twitter hashtag “#Shitbull”. Emerging from a giant pod alongside J-Lo and Claudia Leitte, he mugged his way through the opening ceremony shouting “Ole!” and dancing like your dad, if your dad was fuelled by Voli shots and wore criminally tight white capris. There was also that time when Pitbull turned down a million dollars to perform at the Republican National Convention. Pitbull might just be a leftie. Is it OK to like him now?
At best Pitbull’s music asks nothing of you: no emotional investment, no political agenda, only the earnest request to “feel this moment”. But at worst he has commercialised his own lyrical absence, because Pitbull’s presence is absence. It’s possible to unpack the contents of his lyrics, to RapGenius them to death, and still you will find nothing. Sometimes they feature deliberate voids, as with the missing word from his song "I Know You Want Me":
"Label flop but Pit won't stop / Got her in the cockpit playin' with his (?) / Now watch him make a movie like Alfred Hitchcock"
No version of the song has been found with the missing word left in. The absence is synthetic, because Pitbull will happily sell you an empty song. In this sense, Pitbull’s white suit signifies an absence of colour. He moves like an atonal spectre through a succession of feature spots. He is the Paul Auster protagonist of the international pop game. Adding “featuring Pitbull” to a song functions like an industry injoke, declaring “my song will be bad, but it will make a lot of money”. Behind those dark glasses are empty chasms, a Nietzschean abyss that stares back and whispers, “dale…”