In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
For the past 17 years, virtually my entire career as a full-time music critic, four words have followed me around: “Pitbull: Better Than Nas.” I wrote that headline in 2006, when I was about a year into my job as a music blogger for the Village Voice, and nobody has ever let me forget about it. During my Voice tenure, the late rap raconteur Combat Jack wrote a long blog post about how I was everything that was wrong with rap criticism, and he cited that blog post as one of his main reasons. (Before Jack died, we finally met and had a great conversation.) When the Village Voice finally ended its run in 2018, my guy Jon Caramanica had me on the New York Times Popcast to reflect on those days but also, mostly, to ask whether Pitbull was still better than Nas. At least in the context of that podcast, that was the end of the vast, storied half-century saga of the Village Voice and rock criticism.
For the record, I don’t actually think Pitbull is better than Nas. Nas made Illmatic. Pitbull, to the best of my knowledge, did not make Illmatic. That headline was part trolly clickbait provocation and part inside joke. (The context of the inside joke is not very interesting, but if people really want to know, I’ll put it in the comments section.) When I wrote that post, Nas was in a creative rut — he’s had a few of those — and Pitbull was doing things that I thought were fun and exciting. In the accompanying blog post, I didn’t actually mention Nas once. I just talked about all the things that I liked about El Mariel, Pitbull’s instantly forgotten sophomore album.
Five years after I wrote that post, though, something funny happened. When I wrote about Pitbull, he was a B-list Miami crunk rapper with an excitable Spanglish style and an easy facility with a few different party-based subgenres. Eventually, though, Pitbull completely stopped trying to compete in the rap trenches, though he never stopped rapping. Instead, Pitbull reinvented himself as a leering nightclub lothario. He adapted a uniform look — fancy suits, aviator sunglasses — and rode a wave of superclub-ready Euro-house beats to actual pop stardom. In the summer of 2011, Pitbull went all the way to #1. (For the record, Nas’ highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2003’s “I Can,” peaked at #12. Nas also made it to #10 as a guest on Pitbull collaborator Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Gonna Be Alright (Remix).” That one is a 7.)
Pitbull’s journey to club-rap ubiquity was long and unlikely. Armando Christian Pérez is the son of two Cuban immigrants who fled to America for Castro-related reasons. In 2019, Pitbull told NPR that his grandmother had actually fought on Castro’s side in the Cuban Revolution but that she “figured out that wasn’t the way to go.” Her daughter, Pitbull’s mother, arrived in the US as part of Operation Peter Pan in the early ’60s. Pitbull always worked Cuban iconography into his music, and he wrote lyrics where he fantasized about Castro’s death. Pitbull grew up in Miami, a city famous for its anti-Castro Cuban immigrant community, and he eventually took to calling himself Mr. 305, representing Miami to the rest of the world. (When Pitbull was born, the #1 song in America was John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.”)
Pitbull’s father wasn’t in the picture. At home with his mother, he spoke Spanish; he later claimed that he learned English by watching Sesame Street. Pitbull’s family struggled, moving around the city a lot, and young Pitbull spent some time in foster care. He also dealt drugs and got kicked out of his house. Pitbull loved music, and he absorbed a ton of it in Miami: Latin freestyle, salsa, merengue, dancehall reggae, ’90s rap. In the great New York Times “50 Rappers, 50 Stories” package earlier this year, Pitbull talked about his love of Nas’ Illmatic. The aforementioned Jon Caramanica says that Pitbull rapped AZ’s entire “Life’s A Bitch” verse during that interview — the only verse on Illmatic that it not by Nas. When I heard that, I thought Pitbull was trying to send me some secret message, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
Pitbull also loved Miami bass, his hometown’s own extremely horny club-rap subgenre. In his early career, Pitbull fell under the wing of 2 Live Crew mastermind Luke, the man who introduced the world to Miami bass. (Luke’s highest-charting Hot 100 solo single, 1998’s “Raise The Roof,” peaked at #26.) Pitbull signed to Luke Records and did some rapping on Luke’s 2001 album Somethin’ Nasty. Years later, different labels would get into legal battles over the music that Pitbull recorded back in his Luke Records days. In 2002, as crunk was taking off, Pitbull connected with Lil Jon, a hugely important figure who’s been in this column a few times. Lil Jon gave Pitbull a solo showcase on his 2002 album Kings Of Crunk, and he encouraged Pitbull to rap in Spanish more often.
Lil Jon appeared on Pitbull’s 2004 debut single “Culo,” where Pitbull rapped about butts in Spanish and English over the Coolie Dance riddim, the Jamaican dancehall instrumental that also drove hits from Nina Sky and Mr. Vegas. In a moment when dancehall and crunk were storming the American charts, “Culo” made it to #32 on the Hot 100. It took a long time for Pitbull to make another hit as big as that, but he stayed in rotation, collaborating with artists like Twista and Pretty Ricky. I really liked “Shake,” the 2005 single where Pitbull and the Ying Yang Twins rapped over a fired-up sample of George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa.” (“Shake” peaked at #41.)
The thing I always liked about Pitbull — the reason that I used the phrase “better than Nas” — was his shamelessness. Rappers had to make tracks for clubs in the ’00s; it was practically a contractual requirement. Most of them treated those tracks like court-mandated community service, but Pitbull brought a dizzy exuberance to that stuff. Pitbull sounded out-of-place when he made tough-guy street music or tried to get introspective, but if you got Pitbull to chant 2 Live Crew hooks over a “Rock Lobster” sample, he came alive.
Pitbull’s 2004 debut album M.I.A.M.I. (Money Is A Major Issue) went gold, but later albums didn’t do anywhere near as well. Pitbull singles still charted, especially when he got back together with Lil Jon on songs like “The Anthem” and “Krazy,” which both scraped the top 40. The beats that Lil Jon made for Pitbull got faster and clubbier, pushing their way into full-on rave territory, until the two of them landed on Pitbull’s breakout hit. Pitbull was pushing 30 when he released 2009’s “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho).” Lil Jon produced that track, but there’s no crunk in it. There’s barely any Southern rap. Instead, it’s a full-on house jam that originally came out on the UK dance label Ultra. The song rode the wave of EDM hits all the way to #2. (It’s a 7.)
With “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho),” Pitbull discovered his new persona: the suits, the aviators, the hammering house beats, the maddening stick-in-your-head nursery-rhyme hooks, the horny cartoon-wolf lyrics, the nimble baritone-purr delivery. Future Pitbull singles would ignore rap radio entirely, shooting instead for the crossover-pop audience. That’s the Flo Rida approach, and it can’t be a coincidence that those two guys, both former 2 Live Crew apprentices who were about the same age, figured out how to apply the party-drunk style of Miami bass to hard-candy pop music. But Flo Rida was a total personality vacuum, while Pitbull had his own goofy appeal. Pitbull had the look, the catchphrases (“dalé!”), and the enthusiasm. He delivered his lines in an eyebrow-wiggling growl that danced over the surface of the beat. He was a character. Still is.
Pitbull’s singles weren’t smart or life-affirming, but they worked. In a way, Pitbull’s music called back to rap’s earliest days, when the vocals were just supposed to ornament the floor-filling grooves. For a while, Pitbull was all over the charts. He followed “I Know You Want Me” with the not-as-good “Hotel Room Service,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 5.) Pitbull also became an in-demand guest-rapper. In 2010, he appeared on “I Like It,” a #4 hit from Enrique Iglesias, someone who’s been in this column a couple of times. (It’s another 5.) Later that year, Pitbull again made it to #4 as a guest on onetime Number Ones titan Usher’s fucking awesome “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love.” (It’s a 9.) And in 2011, Pitbull did guest-rapper duties on “On The Floor,” a massive #3 hit from Jennifer Lopez, yet another artist who’s been in this column a bunch of times. (That one is a 6.)
When Pitbull rapped on those pop hits, he didn’t add menace or starpower. Instead, he was an energy guy. His insistent flow kept the track moving, and he peppered these songs with a few catchphrases and corny one-liners, never sucking up too much of the attention. By the time Pitbull recorded his 2011 album Planet Pit, his style had solidified. He worked with dance producers and pop singers, and he made euphorically meaningless bangers that targeted dancefloors across the planet, treating rap less as a regional phenomenon and more as an element within some thumping global party-music monogenre. That’s how Mr. 305 became Mr. Worldwide. For “Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor),” the album’s first single, Pitbull worked with T-Pain, another artist who’s been in this column lots of times, and Rihanna producer Sandy Vee. The track peaked at #7. (It’s a 6.)
Whether he was appearing on other people’s tracks or cranking out his own, Pitbull’s songs tended to sound a whole lot like one another. That was definitely the case with “Give Me Everything,” the song that finally took Pitbull to #1. The beat came from Nick Leonardus van de Wall, the Dutch producer who records under the name Afrojack. Afrojack made his name in Dutch clubs, and he was still in his teens when he released his debut single, 2006’s “In Your Face,” which was a minor hit in the Netherlands. From there, Afrojack did some big remixes, linked up with hitmaking French dance auteur David Guetta, and co-produced Major Lazer’s oft-sampled 2009 banger “Pon De Floor.” In 2011, Afrojack and Major Lazer mastermind Diplo co-produced Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes, and Lil Wayne’s dizzying dance-rap workout “Look At Me Now,” which peaked at #6. (It’s a 10.)
In 2018, Afrojack told Billboard that he got the idea for the “Give Me Everything” melody when he was in the shower. He threw on a towel and ran to his home studio, putting the track together: “I think I was in the studio for like five hours with the towel around me, and I made the whole instrumental of the track.” That beat is full of endorphin-rush ramp-ups and the kind of clanging synth-guitar tones that also drove the Black Eyed Peas’ likeminded megahit “I Gotta Feeling.” There’s a dizzy bounce to Afrojack’s beat that I really like. It pairs nicely with the hummed backup vocals and the blaring synth-sirens. There’s nothing innovative about the “Give Me Everything” instrumental; tracks just like it were all over the pop airwaves in the early ’10s. But it’s a fine example of the form.
Afrojack played the “Give Me Everything” instrumental for Pitbull, who loved it immediately. Pitbull recorded his verses quickly, without overthinking anything, and then he sent the track over to Ne-Yo. Ne-Yo is an R&B singer by trade, and he’s been in this column for his 2006 single “So Sick.” But Ne-Yo’s real calling card was his ability to translate his R&B gifts to European pop styles, especially to the tracks from his regular collaborators Stargate. Along with Stargate, Ne-Yo co-wrote other massive hits like Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and Rihanna’s “Take A Bow.” With his own music, Ne-Yo anticipated the rising dance-pop tide, eventually turning all the way toward chintzy EDM. That’s what made him so perfect for “Give Me Everything.”
“Give Me Everything” is technically Pitbull’s song. Afrojack also gets a feature credit, even though he doesn’t sing anything. Nayer, a Cuban-American singer and Pitbull protege, also coos a few lines on the pre-chorus and earns herself a feature credit. (Nayer never got famous or made another Hot 100 hit.) But the real star of the song is Ne-Yo, who wrote and recorded his hook in half an hour. In Ne-Yo’s voice, I hear a tender, yearning vulnerability that’s simply not there anywhere else on the track, save for maybe the tinkly-piano outro. “Give Me Everything” works like a machine, but Ne-Yo makes it sound human.
The message of “Give Me Everything” is the same thing you’ll hear from just about every other club anthem: You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so you have to really live your life tonight. Specifically, you have to maybe have sex with Pitbull tonight. Pitbull raps about how he’s an American idol, getting money like Seacrest. He won’t be in town for long, so if you want to spend some time with him, you need to seize the opportunity: “Take advantage of tonight/ ‘Cause tomorrow I’m off to Dubai to perform for a princess/ But tonight, I can make you my queen and make love to you endless.”
Pitbull even gives an example of his own money-making ability by including actual product placement in his lyrics. Plenty of people have noticed that Pitbull rhymes “Kodak” with “Kodak” on the “Give Me Everything” intro: “Me not workin’ hard? Yeah, right/ Picture that with a Kodak/ Or, better yet, go to Times Square/ Take a picture of me with a Kodak.” In 2010, Kodak signed Pitbull and a few other pop stars to an endorsement deal. The company got their money’s worth out of “Give Me Everything.” And yes, it’s artistically bankrupt to turn songs into commercials, but I almost respect the baldness of it.
In any case, nobody’s thinking about Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” lyrics. He’s just a presence on the song, the same as he is when he guests on someone else’s track. Ne-Yo does the heavy lifting, really going over-the-top with the massive-earworm chorus. Ne-Yo wants all of you tonight because we might not get tomorrow. As the drums build to a crescendo, Ne-Yo murmurs, “Grab somebody sexy, tell ’em, ‘Hey! Give me everything tonight!'” That’s probably not good dating advice, but it does make for an absolute monster hook. The chorus is what elevates “Give Me Everything” beyond some of the other club tracks that were cluttering up the charts at the time — many of which also featured Pitbull — and gives the song some staying power. “Give Me Everything” is goofy and meaningless, but it’s got drama and momentum, and it’s fun. That matters.
One person actually was paying attention to Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” lyrics, and she wasn’t happy about them. Just before one chorus, Pitbull delivers a weak-sauce quasi-topical punchline: ” I’m tiptoein’ to keep flowin’/ I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan.” In 2010, Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to 90 days in prison for probation violation after multiple arrests. Lohan tried to sue Pitbull for defamation because of that one line, but a judge threw the lawsuit out on First Amendment grounds. (Lohan’s only Hot 100 hit, 2005’s “Confessions Of A Broken Heart (Daughter to Father),” peaked at #57.)
Lindsay Lohan’s ire did not hurt “Give Me Everything.” The song seemed to fit right into the club-pop zeitgeist. The week that “Give Me Everything” reached #1, Jennifer Lopez’s Pitbull collab “On The Floor” was still in the top 20, and the charts were full of other songs that crossed the rap, pop, and EDM streams. (In its moment, “Rolling In The Deep” was a true anomaly.) “Give Me Everything” is now eight times platinum, and its video got its billionth YouTube view earlier this year. Pitbull’s Planet Pit album is double platinum. There are multiple lesser-known Planet Pit tracks with platinum certifications, presumably because they keep showing up on streaming services’ dance and workout playlists.
For the next couple of years, Pitbull kept cranking out singles, and they kept charting, though nothing hit as hard as “Give Me Everything.” Pitbull followed up his Planet Pit LP with 2012’s Global Warming, another album that eventually went double platinum. That record had three top-20 hits. The biggest of them was “Feel This Moment,” which featured Christina Aguilera and which was built on a dumb, obvious interpolation of a-ha’s “Take On Me.” (“Feel This Moment” peaked at #8. It’s a 2.) “Feel This Moment” sounded like the work of a hitmaker who’d conclusively run out of ideas and energy, but that wasn’t quite the case with Pitbull. We’ll see Mr. Worldwide in this column again. You know who doesn’t have multiple #1 pop hits? Nas.
BONUS BEATS: At a 2015 tour stop in Miami, Taylor Swift, an artist who will appear in this column many times, welcomed Pitbull to the stage, and the two of them performed “Give Me Everything” together. Dwyane Wade and Ricky Martin also joined Taylor onstage at that show; the Miami dignitaries really rolled out the red carpet for her. Here’s fan footage of the Taylor/Pitbull connection:
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Excuse me. I might drink a little more than I should tonight. And I might take you home with me if I could tonight. And baby, I’ma ask you to buy the book tonight — or tomorrow, when it comes out in paperback.