This week’s Voice takes a look at how Pitbull rode a bullish multimedia campaign to a level of chart success and celebrity that far exceeds what he accomplished during reggaeton’s heyday. It’s every bit as heartening as it is surprising. When you consider the other acts who have fashioned a similar career arc—a brief but substantial peak, a productive but highly ignored valley and improbable rebirth in an admittedly cratered economy—I welcome Pitbull’s rebirth more than that of Kid Rock, Train or Cake.
Which is not to overstate the idea that Pitbull went totally incognito in the period between reggaeton’s height and the present day—singles with the Ying Yang Twins and Pharrell did fairly decently, while his Spanish-language records anchored him and earned him a slew of Latino Billboard awards. But in the post-reggaeton moment of 2006, he might have been best known in some circles for this very publication’s claim that he was better than Nas. Granted, this took place during the lead-up to Hip Hop Is Dead, so that sort of accolade could’ve just as easily been granted to the likes of Annuals or Brightblack Morning Light and still have had a high degree of accuracy. It’s also worth noting that Nas isn’t mentioned in that piece anywhere after the title, so he could’ve been replaced by the likes of Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers or any other ’90s titan who was making a dreadfully dull album in 2006 merely by being themselves.
Both kept relatively busy in the years since then, and they’ve been on about equal footing: Pitbull may have been the one making the records entirely in Spanish, but they were much easier to comprehend than Nas’ indefensible Untitled. And now, both are in a position where their Q ratings are at a peak—Shakira’s shaking her ass in Pitbull’s new video, and Nas has heads thinking he could at least recapture the glory of It Was Written—so if only for giggles and shits, it’s worth asking the same question again, right?
What’s weirdly admirable about the 2011 incarnations of both Pitbull and Nas is the utter lack of pretense in catering to what they conceive as their core fanbases. Last week Nas leaked “Nasty,” and understandably, most keepers of the “real hip-hop, son” flame were floored by it, overlooking how Nas does this sort of thing like clockwork every three or so years. The rapping itself is technically flawless. Salaam Remi’s beat has old-school kineticism, but never comes off as tethered to a strident fundamentalism. The lack of a hook is the hook, a silent acknowledgement that any sort of communiqué with pop is more evil than Nas’ own artistic compass. (It conveniently forgets that some of his career highlights include “If I Ruled The World,” “Made You Look” and the immortal “Oochie Wally,” each of which contain significant choruses.)
Yet “Nasty” is every bit as ephemeral as “Give Me Everything,” albeit for different reasons. “Give Me Everything” packs a fleeting, overly physical simulacra of the kind of night that is far out of my personal tax bracket and possibly yours; every aspect of the evening, from the bottles to the women to the incessant beats, is supplied by others and meant solely for the purposes of giving pleasure. “Nasty” inhabits a similar fantasia, one where Street’s Disciple, Stillmatic and God’s Son don’t exist as evidence that Nas might not even want to do an entire album’s worth of songs like “Nasty,” even though he could. Not to mention that for all its supposed godbody lyricism, the actual lyrics of “Nasty” are as distant in my memory as Afrojack or Nayer’s contributions to Pitbull’s hit.
Comparing Pitbull and Nas one-to-one is no different than asking if you think a McFlurry is better than a backrub. But thinking about them in tandem, and recognizing that they’re both competing for our finite free time, serves as a reminder of how many strides we’ve made in realizing how most artists’ paths run parallel to each other, and that in 2011, it’s often best to stay in their lanes in hopes of getting back on top. Is Pitbull better than Nas? Isn’t a more worthwhile question “Shouldn’t we try to make room for both?” Hell, knowing those two, they’re probably trying to find a way to get on a track together.