Since riding a crunked-up reggae riddim to popular acclaim with the 2004 single “Culo,” Miami rapper Pitbull has been angling for club dominance. The parallel rise of reggaetón in the American mainstream has no doubt opened doors for the multi-lingual MC, who nevertheless prefers Lil Jon to Luny Tunes. On his latest, El Mariel (TVT), the Dade County native attempts to represent himself and his city with an ambitious set spanning crack-rap crime noir, hypersexed club bangers, and alternately humble and boastful reflections on his life as a hustler.
LA VIDA LOCA: El Mariel spans crack-rap crime noir, hypersexed club bangers, and reflections on Pitbull’s life as a hustler.
Although the album’s title promises to talk politics by invoking the infamous boatlift that brought 125,000 refugees from Cuba to Miami in 1980, Pitbull’s program rarely gets beyond standard get-yours, hustle-hustle hedonism, with a little bit of “minority” (his term) solidarity thrown in. He seems more interested in using El Mariel as a metaphor for the almighty hustle — “coming hard like those Cubans in the ’80s, dog” — than in exploring actual Cuban-American relations, though elsewhere he’s shown little restraint in criticizing Castro (he made a song celebrating the dictator’s supposedly imminent demise last summer) or in proclaiming Cuba to be “la opresión más grande del mundo” (“the greatest oppression in the world” — see this video).
El Mariel is most successful when it pairs the rapper’s sense of humor and swagger and impeccable, flexible flows — switching from a syncopated Down South drawl to staggering staccato reggaetón riddim riding, sometimes in a single verse — with some of the best beats money can buy. The rubber-band-meets-marching-band funk of “Ay Chico” shows Atlanta’s Mr. Collipark at a creative apex, employing tonal drums, stereo effects, sirens, and samba squeaks to create at least three refrains (including an allusion to a salsa hit by Cuban duo Hansel y Raul, long-time staples of the Miami music scene). And though some listeners might be put off by Pitbull’s various macho exhortations — i.e., “Move over, girl, show me what you workin’ with” — those looking for a little more balance in their booty music will be pleased to know that going down on El Mariel about as often as shoot-outs and coke deals is Pitbull himself, who repeats on several occasions his desire to please orally the objects of his gaze.
By turns minimal and maximal, futuristic while riffing on tradition, El Mariel offsets the synths with more “organic” signifiers of Latin music, from hand drums to chopped-and-stabbed samples of Willie Colón’s trombone. In another highlight, Mr. Collipark tweaks the nostalgic strains of Latin freestyle — and even more of Miami’s musical heritage — by revisiting the melody from Debbie Deb’s “When I Hear Music” to undergird the driving drums of “Fuego,” a track propelled by the sort of techno bombast that inspires the rushing synths, arcing arpeggios, and cresting drum rolls of crunk and reggaetón alike. The contributions from Lil Jon and others don’t stand out as much as Collipark’s bangers, but they seem to be faring well in clubs and on “hurban” radio, especially “Dime,” a saccharine duet with reggaetón crooner Ken-Y. You could ask for tighter, better album, but the unruly ambition and occasionally crass commercialism here may just be par for the course. Tapping his city’s rich soundscape, Pitbull offers a seductive, uneven vision of the hard life and the high life.