Read an interview, any interview, with Pitbull from five or six years ago, as the Miami-born rapper was forcing his way into the American pop mainstream, and you’re likely to come across reference to his multi-year plan for world domination. It went something like this:
“2009: freedom. 2010: invasion. 2011: build empire. 2012: grow wealth. 2013: put the puzzle together. 2014: buckle up. 2015: make history.”
Now one year past the last notch on his initial timetable, how does Pitbull (real name Armando Christian Pérez) feel he’s fared?
“Every one of those was right on the money,” he says. In fact, he’s expanded those plans even further, as he explains: “2016 is disruption, and we’re disrupting as we speak. 2017: gingerbread man, catch me if you can. And 2018: legacy.”
This sort of talk sums up Pitbull’s “Mr. Worldwide” persona remarkably well: An overblown, goofily self-aggrandizing mixture of Tony Robbins and Tony Montana that stops feeling so silly when you realize how sincerely the singer means it, and how well he’s managed to pull it all off.
Pitbull is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on July 15, and he notes that his star will be within a few steps of his idol, Celia Cruz. (“Two Cubans on the same block!” he beams.) He’s accomplished this level of stardom through music that seems a logical outgrowth of that multiyear philosophy, producing dizzy, frenetic, sometimes silly pop spectacles with a very serious business theory behind them. While none of his albums have yet gone platinum, Pitbull has been involved with more than 20 Top 40 singles over the past decade, and stands as one of the most streamed artists of all time — in other words, he’s learned how to make his hits land where they count.
Pitbull’s endorsement-friendly approach to brand-building, equal parts savvy and shamelessness, has also been visible since the beginning of his pop reign. As soon as he started notching up singles like “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” (No. 2 in 2009), “Give Me Everything” (No. 1 in 2011), and “Timber” (three weeks at No. 1 in 2013), he also started minting deals with Bud Light, Dr. Pepper, Playboy, Dodge, Kodak. While few pop stars of Pitbull’s stature don’t dabble in brand partnerships, Pitbull’s enthusiasm for the marketing side of the gig stands out.
Perhaps the most unusual demonstration of this enthusiasm came in 2012, when he partnered with Walmart for a promotion that would send the singer to appear at whichever Walmart location garnered the most Facebook likes. An internet prank campaign — dubbed #exilepitbull — soon emerged to send the singer to a Walmart in Kodiak Island, Alaska, urging Pitbull-haters to stuff the digital ballot box. Practically, the campaign was successful; the Kodiak Walmart was the winner. But philosophically, Pitbull ensured that the attempted embarrassment backfired completely: He showed up, glad-handled the locals, and appeared to sincerely enjoy himself on the remote Alaskan outpost, announcing, “I’ll travel anywhere in the world for my fans.”
This ability to turn mockery into a badge of honor, to counter smarty-pants snark with disarmingly unironic gumption, has been a constant for Pitbull. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine him being roped into a similar deal these days, as he’s grown more discerning about his business ventures.
“Throughout the years, I’ve seen a lot of people wanna use the word partnership, but then drop the ball from their side, like, just because a name is attached to it, it’s gonna do all their work for them,” he says. “There’s no magic trick, there’s no silver bullet, there’s no cutting corners when it comes to building businesses. Because that’s what you’ve gotta do, you’ve gotta build ‘em. So when you have a partner that understands it’s short steps and long vision, then you got the right partner. And that takes a long time.”
Finding the right partners has also been an essential element of his music career. Few of his biggest singles have featured the singer alone, and he’s wracked up three Top 5 singles as a featured artist. His upcoming 10th album, “Climate Change,” boasts an appropriately crowded guest roster: Enrique Iglesias, Leona Lewis, Flo Rida, Lunch Money, Stephen Marley and Jennifer Lopez, the latter his most consistent duet partner (the two performed the official song for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil). These names represent a familiarly broad spectrum, from rap to reggae to Latin pop to pop, and he’s even ventured into country, guesting on a song with Keith Urban and performing at the CMT Awards in spring.
Pitbull’s default musical style has mutated continuously since he released his first album in 2004, and that is very much by design. But where some might see an opportunistic attempt to co-opt whatever is most hot at the moment, Pitbull sees it as the core of his musical identity — synthesis.
“They’ve always tried to stick me in different genres,” he says, “but when I was coming up in the game, I said, ‘I just wanna make global music, bottom line.’
“Coming from Miami, I had the chance to grow up around so many different genres and artists, so the Pandora’s box was always opened up for me. I was surrounded with merengue, freestyle, booty-shaking music, funk, disco … and then hip-hop was the one that brought it all together, because I was hearing beats from when I was a kid being remade, with rapping about things that I was accustomed to seeing in my environment. There’s Biggie, Pac, 2 Live Crew, and then there’s Celia Cruz, Earth Wind and Fire, Miami Sound Machine … I could go on.”
Appropriately, Pitbull makes no apologies for the one-track-mindedness of much of his music.
“I love music that makes you want to get up and lose your mind and have fun,” he says. “Some people might like music that’s more emotional … but I want to have very quick punchlines, something people can sing along to, because I think that’s what makes timeless records.”
Pitbull has a foot in the celebrity fragrance market, and recently launched his own Sirius XM station. But his biggest recent venture is his expansion into television, having formed the production company Honey I’m Home just a few years ago. Pacting with Endemol, Pitbull produced a New Year’s Eve special for Fox last December, and he’s developing a scripted show with the net, dubbed “305,” in honor of Miami’s area code.
“As far as TV goes, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I know what I’m doing,” he says. “I don’t, at all. But I know that I’m learning, I know that I’m open to conversation and constructive criticism with the people around me.
“All I can do is give my input and my ideas, and they may or may not work. But I’m not the kind of guy who says, ‘This is gonna be the direction, this is what we’re gonna do ….’ All I can do is surround myself with people who have good reputations and understand the business better than I do.”
Pitbull talks often of leverage. Branching out into television, as well as establishing himself as a consistent live draw, makes sense when faced with the financial instability of the music-streaming model.
“One thing the music business has always been horrible at is keeping up with the times. If the music business would’ve bought Napster instead of suing Napster, if they had gone into business with Steve Jobs instead of going against the grain, they might have been a part of every iPhone and iPod.
“Now they have a piece of Spotify and a piece of Vevo. They’re trying to keep up with the times, but what they’re still doing, is they’re still not doing right business with the artists. But artists are smarter, more powerful, their brands are bigger, and the labels are figuring out that they can no longer control them.”
Yet strangely, when asked about long-shot passion projects, he brings up his venture into the spirits industry with Voli Vodkas, for which he served as an equity partner and brand ambassador for six years.
“It’s been through three CEOs, a lot of ups and downs, and it’s gotten to the point now where people don’t believe in it,” he says of the brand. “So what are we doing? We just went and bought the company. We own it now, 100%. Us owning the company goes to show people that we still bet on ourselves in positions where people might think, ‘oh, that’s a horrible opportunity.’
“And I always look at it like, well, Pitbull was a horrible opportunity at one point: A white Cuban with blue eyes from Miami getting into the hip-hop game, and going from the hip-hop game to the rhythmic game, from the rhythmic game to the pop game, from the pop game to the world game. Who would’ve thought?”