Of all the cliches associated with rappers, one with more truth in it than most is their fondness for epic entourages: staff, sidekicks and assorted hangers-on designated a token menial role in the group. (It’s usually to do with not wanting to leave old friends behind in a poverty that the rapper has escaped.) Pitbull, it transpires, is different: As I await instructions regarding the interview time and place, he has casually made his own way across Miami to our hotel, arriving unexpectedly and entirely without company. Though rowdy on record, he is the epitome of politeness in person: When a hotel maid arrives with drinks, she is visibly taken aback to be greeted, unwarned, by a man who is something of a celebrity hero in his hometown — let alone one so eager to be solicitous and to help her with her tray.
Pitbull, aka 30-year-old Armando Christian Perez, has been knocking around for seven years — though it is only since 2009 that he has exploded into an unpredicted and still confounding ubiquity as one of the more inescapable figureheads of the urban/electro fusion that has dominated in the pop landscape for the last three years. It has offered endless permutations — or rather, the same permutation, endlessly deployed — of a basic ABC formula: abrasive Auto-Tune, boshing beats, cheesy chat-up lines, and it’s the default safe option of a certain kind of pop star, on both sides of the Atlantic: Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Alexandra Burke.
As often as not, a guest verse from Pitbull is an inevitability: As with Sean Paul and Ludacris in years past, his name seems to be appended to 99 percent of the instances of the word “featuring” in any given top 40. His own latest album, Planet Pit, is shamelessly populist — to its detriment at times, such as playing up to a cringe-worthy Latin cliche on Shake Senora, but often to its benefit, with tracks such as Give Me Everything and Rain Over Me hammering you about the head until you cave in rather than seducing you with innovation.
Though his combination of good-natured randiness, dance floor exhortations and slightly dubious objectification has gained him worldwide hits, Pitbull wins few critical plaudits for them these days — curious, given his reputation before he started bothering the charts, when he was the go-to MC for the various movements of Southern hip-hop that came in and out of fashion over the last decade: crunk, reggaeton, Dirty South rap. Particularly in partnership with crunk maestro Lil Jon’s bass-heavy, hyped-up sound, Pitbull rode beats designed for the dance floor and turned them into ferociously lascivious anthems: Toma, Culo, and guest spots on the Ying Yang Twins’ Shake and Twista’s Hit The Floor were among his highlights. Nonetheless, Pitbull attributes his mid-career explosion less to a change of musical style than a change of label: TVT Records, which folded in 2006, had limited the number of official collaborations he was allowed to do. (No wonder he’s so willing to work with anyone who asks these days.)
Pitbull says he feels no loyalty to any specific genre: He readily admits he is “constantly looking for the next movement,” and those sick of relentless Europump will be pleased to know that he has one fingered for the future: “I think it’s gonna be baile funk. Baile funk is a lot of fun right now, very big in the clubs and in the streets.” (It’s also seven years since baile funk first hit Western clubs, due largely to its influence on MIA’s debut album, but that misses the point: Pitbull is not talking about baile funk hitting niche hipster dance floors, but about massive populist success.) But, in all his incarnations to date, what defines Pitbull is the way in which his background — both his Cuban heritage and his upbringing in Miami — enables him to stand at the intersection of so many overlapping styles and demographics: the Latin audience (last year, he quietly released a Spanish-language album, Armando) as well as the hip-hop audience, and the vast variety of club music for which Miami is a hub. “I grew up around salsa, merengue, bachata, bass music, freestyle, hip-hop, techno, house, rave,” he elaborates. “Miami is special for that. It’s a city where you don’t know if it’s more a part of the US, or of the Caribbean, or of Latin America, or of Europe.”