Spectacle begets spectacle, and the 2014 World Cup kicked off with a doozy, via a live performance of the song we'll hear thousands of times before it's all through: "We Are One (Ole Ola)," Pitbull's official FIFA anthem, costarring Jennifer Lopez and Brazilian pop star Claudia Leitté.
The song is fine enough, with a sing-along hook and generic calls to inspiration, though many Brazilians hate it for its lack of a tangible connection to Brazil, aside from vague, anorexic gestures toward the whistles and percussion of samba. Unfortunately, such a generic "global sound" is to be expected, considering the song's unusually massive cadre of (non-Brazilian) writers and producers: Dr. Luke, RedOne, Cirkut, Sia, Thomas Troelson, and Danny Mercer. And really, every recent World Cup theme song is decentralized, with one foot in the Western world whether that's warranted or not, aspiring to sound both sort-of-local and sort-of-from-everywhere: Recall Shakira's hot mess of a 2010 World Cup single, "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)," and cringe at the melodic plagiarism.
"We Are One" is, at least, not a total rip, and Thursday's opening ceremony was certainly not boring. The trio of Pit, Claudia, and J.Lo performed atop a stage that unfurled not unlike an artichoke, surrounded by mimes in iridescent blue, drummers emblazoned with rainbow peace signs, and dancers dressed as rainforest trees who looked more like stalks of broccoli. Yet despite all the Carnivál-invoking absurdity, the most remarked-upon aspect of the performance happened to be Pitbull's white trousers, which were a tad tight in the waist and a little looser in the inseam, and rolled up above his ankles to show off his driving shoes. Fluffy headlines dominated the ceremony coverage, from both usual (Today.com: "Pitbull's Pants Are the Talk of Social Media") and unusual (the International Business Times: Pitbull's Weird Pants Trigger Hilarious Reactions") suspects.
Having closely followed his career for 12 years now, this much I know to be true: Pitbull does not deserve the amount of hate he gets.
The uninitiated know Pit for his recent rise as a second-tier-award-show host, overly enthusiastic Bud Lite pitchman, and EDM opportunist. But as the World Cup chatter suggests, the pants backlash is more about a general disdain for his persona than a distaste for (or even working knowledge of) his music. In turn, in America at least, that's connected to a general distaste for (if not complete misunderstanding of) his Miami hometown itself, that glossy, breezy, beautiful metropolis down south with a gravitational pull for everyone from political refugees (Cuba, Haiti) to island immigrants and vacationers (Jamaica, Puerto Rico) to rappers gunning for a second home (Lil Wayne, Nas, Will Smith). Miami is both incredibly important and criminally underrated as a national cultural power, and Pitbull exemplifies both parts of that equation.
Whenever Pit declares himself "Mr. Worldwide," as he did on both a 2009 mixtape and a 2011 single, he's flaunting not just his impending total world domination, but his upbringing as a first-generation Cuban in a city that boasts one of the highest percentages of Latinos in the country, beating out New York City by around 40 percent. On "Mr. Worldwide," he further boasts that he took the "305 worldwide," echoing his other nickname (and record label), Mr. 305, the area code for Miami-Dade County. Recoiling at Pitbull is equivalent to recoiling at large swathes of Latino culture: Sorry about the pants and the tight shirts, but some of us just dress that way.
Besides, focusing on the superficial elements distracts from the true essence of Pitbull: a crucially important part of hip-hop and "urban" Latino music, as well as a consummate tastemaker whose open ear and dalliances with new types of music and musicians put him, at times, on par with globally inquisitive DJs like Diplo. The man born Armando Christian Pérez started putting in work in 2002, releasing his first hip-hop material on TVT, the now-defunct label that first gave us Lil Jon and Teedra Moses. From the beginning, Pit established himself as a political mind—his first few albums were full of titles referencing Cuban politics and immigration, including El Mariel—but also attuned to party music, as on his huge (and still banging) 2004 single "Toma."
From the beginning, he rapped bilingually, and recorded with Latin and Caribbean artists, asserting his identity in a hip-hop landscape then generally skeptical of Latino rappers (especially those who weren't from the Bronx). At the height of crunk, he was post-regional when hip-hop was still fiercely devoted to regionalism; early on, he recorded with Houston's Bun B and Miami's Trick Daddy, Kingston's Vybz Kartel and San Juan's Daddy Yankee. He was Mr. Worldwide before he started telling us so.
Though Pitbull started working with radio-dominator Dr. Luke as early as 2009 (on "Girls," featuring the then-burgeoning Ke$ha), it wasn't until 2011's Planet Pit that the Cuban-American rapper exploded into the consciousness of the pop charts and, by extension, white people. The album's second single, "Give Me Everything," was Pitbull's first-ever Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper—with its bottle-service house gloss and hands-in-the-air hooks from Ne-Yo and Nayer, the single coincided with pop and R&B ramming full-speed into EDM, just then revealing itself as one of the American music industry's most lucrative genres.
"Give Me Everything" was the first collaboration between Pitbull and Afrojack, the Dutch house producer and DJ who, that year, was experiencing a seemingly unending ascent as a global force, and whose success with sonic excess shifted pop music as a whole. It's this Euro-nowhere sound that, I suspect, fuels much of the Pitbull hateration, but that same sound has propelled him to the ranks of global superstardom. It's his central anomaly: He is both loved and despised because he's an amicable party-cheerleader with an easy sexuality whose calls to ass-shaking are forever lighthearted. This persona is why he was chosen to host the 2013 American Music Awards, and why his twerk-lesson interlude was both family-friendly and historically reverent. When was the last time you heard anyone invoke the "Tootsee Roll" or "Doo Doo Brown" on network television?
He's consistently been a fan of music, as well, and his curiosity has informed his own work; in 2012 and 2013 alone, he featured musicians as broad-ranging as Baltimore club pioneer DJ Class, Congalese R&B vocalist Mohombi, and L.A. trap producer RL Grime. In 2006, Pitbull freestyled on Lethal Bizzle's "Forward Riddim," becoming the first prominent U.S. artist to engage with grime, a British genre that still stumps many Americans; consequently, "Forward Riddim" was arguably the first grime track to be played on U.S. mainstream radio after Hot 97's Funkmaster Flex dropped it in his regular Friday night set. In 2009, after Sensato's dirty single "Watagatapitusberry" was blowing up the Latin charts and inspiring Dominican-American teenagers, Pitbull and Lil Jon put down an official remix, garnering a larger fanbase for Sensato, who soon accepted Pit as a mentor and label head. Same goes for a slew of Latino artists, including Panamanian singer Fito Blanko, Dominican merenguero El Cata, and Alexis y Fido, huge reggaeton artists from Puerto Rico.
While some of his more recent music might seem untenable—or is that untenably catchy?—in its kowtowing to big Vegas and Miami clubs like Tao and Liv, Pitbull's domination of the Latin and club charts has also enabled a slew of lesser-known musicians to drop music in his name, almost all of whom are either from Latin America or American-born Latinos. This is huge in a world that often still ignores Latin and Spanish-language music unless it's somehow marketable to non-Latinos, a world where an American-born Dominican icon like Romeo Santos can sell out two nights at Yankee Stadium but had to score features from Drake and Nicki Minaj before many English-speaking publications would even notice. However strongly some of us might feel about Afrojack and other Euro-EDM producers having ruined Pitbull's music with their hammy fists, it does not take away from the fact that he's a crossover artist who still raps in Spanglish, who constantly shouts out Latinos, and who will wear an admittedly ill-fitting pair of white capri pants to the World Cup opening, repping his club hermanos Miami-wide.
There's a fairly popular genre in Brazil called tecnobrega, which translates to "cheesy techno." It consists mostly of kitschy tracks from the '80s remixed or reworked into dance-floor bangers, a strain of earnest nostalgia quite common in certain parts of Latin America, even in the hallowed clubs of NYC. Viewed through this lens, Pitbull is simply interpreting a certain tradition and blowing it up large, with fireworks. As an Americanized purveyor of cheesy techno, maybe he's closer to Brazil than anyone realizes. At the very least, even if you hate his pants (or his taste in beer), his music deserves your respect.
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images.
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