Since 1923, Rio de Janeiro's opulent Copacabana Palace hotel has housed everyone from Eva Perón to the Clintons on their way through the tropics. Tonight, down one of the Palace's perfumed hallways and behind a dark-wood door, sits the latest visiting dignitary: Armando Christian Pérez, better known as the chart-topping rapper Pitbull. Hunched over a coffee table in a white wifebeater and black Armani Exchange track pants, the MC scribbles intently and nurses a caipirinha. His 79th show of the year will be starting soon. But first he has to finish up the last two tracks for his seventh album, Global Warming – with less than 48 hours to go before the disc is due for mastering.
Pitbull nods along with the caffeinated synths blaring from engineer Al Burna's speaker and tries to decide which foreign locales he should incorporate into his ad-libs. "Istanbul, definitely – I had such a fucking good time in Istanbul," he says. "Singapore – the economy is booming." His gregarious manager, Charles Chavez, chimes in, "How about Bangkok?" All three guys crack up knowingly.
The song, featuring an earworm of a hook from Chris Brown, is called "Hope We Meet Again." It might be about a woman, or several. But mostly it's about overseas markets, and how much Pitbull loves conquering new ones with his buoyant Spanglish dance rap. The 31-year-old Miami native offers a sports analogy: Most rappers are like football or basketball pros, their appeal all but ending at the U.S. border. Pitbull wants to play soccer.
After a while, he enters the spacious bedroom, where he has propped pillows and blankets against the walls for makeshift soundproofing. "Rio, Panama, Colombia," he intones gravely into a stand-up microphone. "Dubai, Beirut, Malaysia..." He raises his voice dramatically: "Let's take over the world!"
Brazil is still a work in progress for Pitbull. When he joins his six-man backing band onstage at Rio's indoor sports arena around midnight, the stands are far from full. Pitbull takes this as a challenge. He turns up the charm, flashing a million-watt grin as he thrusts his pelvis in ways that threaten the structural integrity of his tailored black trousers. Pretty much everything gets the same Magic Mike moves – his own hits, a quick cover of LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It," the riff from "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Halfway through the set, he drapes a large Brazilian flag around his shoulders, drawing cheers.
"That was a cool little crowd," he remarks the next afternoon as a black SUV speeds us to the airport. "A little too cool."
Climbing aboard his chartered Gulfstream jet, Pitbull sinks into a plush cream-colored seat. "I look at last night and go, 'OK, we got a lot of work to do here.' I'm up there studying, doing my own homework. I love that. Complacency is the cousin of death."
Pitbull learned early on how to spin setbacks into opportunities. He grew up in a succession of dicey neighborhoods all over Miami, where his parents had settled after escaping Fidel Castro's Cuba. His mother held down multiple jobs to support Armando and his half-sisters; his late father, who split when Armando was young, got in on Miami's Reagan-era coke boom. Pitbull whips out his BlackBerry and shows me a faded photo of his dad, a tough-looking guy in a sharp suit. "I really didn't like him at a certain time," he says. "But I am him – he's the one who put the hustle in my blood."
The drug trade proved irresistible. "I thought cocaine was the end-all, be-all," he says. When his mother caught him selling at age 16, she kicked him out. "She goes, 'I can put up with a lot of shit, but you're not going to fucking disrespect me,'" he recalls. "'Grab what you can and get the fuck out of my house.'"
His slate-blue eyes widen as he thinks about where he might have ended up if he hadn't discovered rap around this time. "I could have easily taken another turn. Hip-hop became my therapy."
Pitbull's hungry freestyles caught the ear of 2 Live Crew's Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell, who took him on tour in 2001. He went on to release three albums on TVT Records between 2004 and 2007, yielding a handful of hits. But he felt stifled at TVT, and after a legal battle with the label, he got out of his contract in 2009. "The head of TVT reminded me of Castro," he says. "As soon as I got free, I started doing business with everybody."
Pitbull the pop star was born that year. Out went the street snarl and crunk-meets-reggaeton thump that powered his early success; in came three-piece suits, four-on-the-floor beats and party anthems that make the Black Eyed Peas sound depressed. "He started to produce these mass-appeal hits that stations all over the country could play," says Sharon Dastur, program director at New York's Z100 radio.
Pitbull's career reboot kicked off with 2009's clubby "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)," which sold 2.7 million downloads and reached Number Two on Billboard's Hot 100. Since then, he's churned out six more Top 20 singles – including last year's Number One smash, "Give Me Everything" – and has guested on major hits by Usher, Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias. "I'm never worried about overexposing myself," he says. "That shit's for the birds, man. They want new shit all the fucking time."
As part of his reinvention, Pitbull has gone fully, unapologetically corporate – inking lucrative endorsement deals with Bud Light, Kodak, Dr Pepper and Zumba Fitness, as well as securing equity stakes in companies that make vodka, dissolvable energy strips and fast food. "To establish myself as a brand," he says, "I had to do deals with big brands."
He dreams of making music a side hustle to a larger marketing and consulting operation by the time he's 35. Even the luxury aircraft currently carrying us to his next show is part of the overall strategy. "There's no better place to do business than in here, 'cause you can't go no-fucking-where," he says after we reach cruising altitude. "If I got you for four or five hours, I'm-a have that deal cut by the time I land."
Pitbull's arch-capitalist turn has made him an easy target for mockery. Last summer, when he signed on to make an appearance at whichever Walmart won a Facebook contest, a wiseguy blogger marshaled thousands of "likes" for a remote branch in Alaska. "I guess they thought they were going to bully me on the Internet," he says, smiling. "Kodiak was gorgeous."
He does turn down some offers, particularly when he suspects he's being used for his ethnicity. "When I sit in those board meetings, they say 'multicultural' and 'general market,' " he says. "No, motherfucker, multicultural is your general market!"
Pitbull peers out the jet's oval-shape window, sunlight streaming across his face. "I am the American dream," he adds. "Hip-hop gave me an out, and the world is giving me an in. Where do we go from here?" He laughs. "God knows."
After touching down in Salvador, northeastern Brazil's party capital, we head for a local festival, where Pitbull's staff is extremely frustrated to learn that the promoters have failed to supply the video screen required for his blockbuster-grade graphics. One of his managers, Michael Calderon, paces anxiously backstage. "We might be canceling the show," Calderon says with a sigh after ducking out of the star's dressing room.
In the end, Pitbull wins over the crowd without special effects. He opens with his 2011 hit "Hey Baby (Drop It to the Floor)," leaping up and down and barking slick lines even more urgently than he did last night in Rio. He headbangs vigorously to his band's covers of "Seven Nation Army" and "Sweet Child O' Mine" between songs. Before long, young women are climbing on their boyfriends' shoulders to wave their hands frantically and mispronounce his name at the top of their lungs: "PITCHI-BOOL!"
At his hotel a couple of hours after the show, a beautiful brasileira in a tight yellow minidress reclines on the rumpled bed while Pitbull, his engineer and another friend lay down some background vocals for "Hope We Meet Again." "It sounds like a choir of angels," she says dreamily. Pitbull smirks and says, "It sounds like three guys that know how to eat pussy!"
With a glass of white wine in one hand, he uses the other to cue up a few more new songs on his engineer's laptop. "Feel This Moment" has a gale-force Christina Aguilera hook and a sample of A-ha's "Take on Me." "Have Some Fun" is a flirtatious club track featuring British-Irish teen idols the Wanted – "My Fifty Shades of Grey," he announces to general laughter. Next up is a raunchy Akon collaboration, straightforwardly titled "Everybody Fucks."
That last one probably won't be showing up in any Dr Pepper ads. But it's not as if any of this is about to scare off his corporate partners, either. "They're trying to sell a product through my life," Pitbull says. "People believe that I have a fucking good time. Damn right, bitch." He takes another swig of wine. "I have the time of my life."
This story is from the November 22, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Rio de Janeiro
- Copacabana Palace hotel