lthough it was only certified Gold, Pitbull's 2004 debut album M.I.A.M.I. (Money Is a Major Issue) nonetheless felt like the arrival of a potentially major hip-hop star. A rapper of Cuban descent who favored manic party jams, but wasn't tied to the Reggaeton movement, Pitbull seemed to have limitless potential. With each of the album's three singles ("Culo," "Dammit Man" and "Toma") becoming a bigger hit than the last and, Pitbull proving on guest spots that he was lyrically versatile enough to hang with just about any MC, El Mariel came with high expectations.
So why does it feel so anti-climactic? At least part of it has to do with its lead single, an abomination called "Bojangles," remixed here with the Ying Yang Twins, on which Lil Jon substitutes booming floor toms for the kick drum, with nearly unlistenable results. Although he was initially heavily identified with Lil Jon, who also produced one of El Mariel's best songs, "Voodoo," Pitbull has an identity beyond being merely a "crunk" artist now, and it seems unnecessary to go back to that well now that it isn't yielding much in the way of hits. What's truly disappointing, though, is that The Diaz Brothers, the duo that discovered Pitbull and produced several great tracks on M.I.A.M.I., are relegated to executive producer status on El Mariel and contribute only one beat.
Pitbull does foster at least one blossoming partnership with a producer on El Mariel, however. He and Mr. Collipark exhibited great chemistry on two collaborations last year, the Ying Yang Twins' "Shake" and Twista's "Hit the Floor." And Collipark's two productions on El Mariel live up to that pedigree, especially on current single "Ay Chico (Lengua Afuera)." Collipark augments his usual subsonic bass with handclaps and Latin percussion, with long, furious timbale drum-rolls providing an unexpected hook, while Pitbull tailors his delivery to the busy track and leads a sing-along on the call-and-response chorus.
When Pitbull's amped up, his voice blares like a foghorn, constantly switching up his flow, mixing in conversational asides, or staggering syllables into triplet accents. Like Twista, he has an incredibly rapid and precise flow, but he doesn't lean on double-time raps as a crutch or gimmick.
Pitbull's always had more of a penchant for political and personal lyrics than his reputation as a crunk rapper let on, as he establishes several times on El Mariel. But the album's more serious tracks, like "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," prove that he still has some growing to do as a lyricist; his sentiments are expressed almost entirely through empty platitudes. Even "Raindrops," a song about the recent deaths of his father and his best friend, is bogged down with strings of clichés like "see in life, things go wrong/ If it don't kill you it's only gonna make you strong / So you must hold on / If everything was right then there's something wrong / Ironic ain't it, that's just the way life is / That's why I thank God every chance I get for blessing me with beautiful kids." Luckily, his delivery is peppered with rhythmic variation as he darts in and out of the beat—even when he's on lyrical autopilot it's worth hearing.
But among a handful of great dance tracks and the middling “serious” songs, El Mariel is full of duds, like the remix of Ken-Y's insufferable En Espanol easy listening ballad "Dime," and the B-52's-sampling novelty track "Hey You Girl." What drags El Mariel down isn't its attempts at sonic or lyrical variety, but the fact that, even with an abundance of upbeat tracks, it simply isn't as effective as M.I.A.M.I. as a party record. El Mariel could've been Pitbull's shot at a classic, or at least a breakthrough hit, but instead he's just barely avoided the sophomore slump.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-11-16