Instead of arguing with Lil Jon’s defiantly bejeweled “Crunk Aint Dead” neckpiece, we might only suggest adding the word “yet” to the end. Certainly the Atlantan aesthetic of slinky synthesizer riffs and twittering drum loops no longer has a reputation as preeminent national fad; the parade of saccharine nonsense passing in and out of teenagerdom’s port of fascination continues unabated. But the question remains as to whether crunk will be something people choose to forget or whether it can evolve to stay relevant, and Lil Jon could do worse for his career and legacy than to hang around Pitbull.
The Boatlift is Pitbull’s third studio album and proves once again that the Cuban-American rapper is a savvy curator of Latin-inflected rhythms, classic crunk, and dance-floor R&B. On last year’s underappreciated El Mariel, he extended himself as an MC, showing a deft lyrical touch and a talented flow that could both reach Twista-worthy speeds and match Bun B’s slow-reeling snarl. Here Pitbull seems less willing to rap at length, a decision that is a disappointment if not necessarily a misstep. The beats supplied by Lil Jon, Mr. Collipark (the Southern minimalist behind Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait” and David Banner’s “Play”), and a handful of less-notable producers are a diverse lot, as if to show that Pitbull is intent on compiling the perfect party mix.
Although Pitbull has released a number of Spanish-only tracks, and an all-Spanish version of El Mariel was planned but never realized, the songs on his albums lack an air of exclusivity; every song on Boatlift waxes bilingual. Instead, Spanish becomes another slang subset in Pitbull’s poetic arsenal, no more off-putting than the tamest Ghostface gibberish. In a move especially ambitious given today’s fractured music market, Pitbull has put together an album that could be played in clubs everywhere from South Beach to South Central. “Un Poquito” samples Spanish flamenco guitar and layers it underneath a menacing choral keyboard to dizzying, beautiful effect.
“Ying & the Yang,” a squeaking ascension of flute backed by thumping bass, is nothing new from Lil Jon, yet it satisfies instantly and unexpectedly, the way so much of his music can. On the mid-tempo “I Don’t See Em” and the reggaeton-tinged “The Anthem,” Pitbull successfully merges Southern crunk with Latin dance rhythms. The calculation behind each of these is clear: It’s as if you can see Pitbull moving down a list of target demographics. Only rarely does the plotting fail: “Secret Admirer” and “Tell Me” gushingly attempt the rap romance ballad, which by definition is always a terrible idea.
For better or worse, the story of Boatlift concerns more the production and song structures than Pitbull’s own rapping. It’s clear he’d rather be a chorus-shouter than a verse-spitter, or at least he believes that will help him sell more records. Maybe it depends on whether the listener is lying reclined or standing dance-ready, but I know I would rather hear Pitbull vocalize weird, witty couplets like “I bet they see me/Only little Cuban on TV” and “These are things I have to get off my chest/Sometimes I feel all I can give you is sex—I’m sorry” than the perfunctory “Get nasty, get freaky” or “If you didn’t come to dance, then what did you come for?”—all of which are found on Boatlift, though the latter two are more representative. If the immensely talented Pitbull wants to continue to release music as a party-organizer, more power to him. He should know, though, that a pure rap album would find an audience just as easily.