In the same way that Pitbull has been parachuted into dozens of pop hits to spout a fleeting guest verse, the Miami rapper’s appearance at this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix carried equal swiftness and surprise. Thursday’s performance at Du Arena – an opening night slot traditionally saved for an Arabic all-star bill – was announced, out-of-the-blue, just two weeks earlier. The advertising hoardings on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, unveiled sometime earlier, only made mention of the other three after-race concerts (The Chemical Brothers on Friday, Lionel Richie on Saturday and Rihanna on Sunday).
Yet, the biggest surprise was how fitting this final brainwave booking felt. Onstage, as in his lyrics, Pitbull surrounds himself in bringing video images of sharp suits, glamorous females, fast cars and gleaming cityscapes – in short, every negative stereotype detractors might hold about the global F1 circus. But the man nicknamed “Mr Universal” also has hits by the bucketload, and the unlikely Abu Dhabi crowd lapped it up with relish and glee.
After some mythmaking multimedia backstory – we learnt how his family fleeing Castro’s Cuba shaped Pitbull’s “hustler mentality”, told bizarrely over Phil Collins ballad In the Air Tonight – the great hound appeared, in all his red-blooded, dark-glasses-sporting glory.
The opening salvo struck with a prizefighter’s intent – Don’t Stop the Party, International Love and Hey Baby (Drop it to the Floor) – carefully crafted but generically numbing dance-pop tunes, lasciviously celebrating one thing, and one thing only. Throughout, a raft of seductively clad female dancers drape themselves over the artist – I’ve eaten raw jalapeños with more subtlety of taste.
The problem with performing these hits live – as with many of the bangers to come – is that Pitbull is no singer, which is precisely why his success rests on employing fellow stars to deliver all the hooks between his raps. But onstage these choruses – the bits everyone actually remembers and sings along to – are relegated to reproduced recordings. So nodding along to J Lo singing On the Floor or Enrique Iglesias’s I Like It feels empty and artificial. Ironically, it has Pitbull relegating himself to a featured act at his own show.
Perhaps to make up for this embarrassing deficiency, the set is peppered with a bewildering number of tantalising pre-song snippets, generally indiscreetly strutting, macho rock anthems – Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger and Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child O’Mine. All the more bizarre that Pitbull’s five-piece band features no lead guitarist to play these iconic riffs (again, synths or samples are clearly at play).
Still, despite all this ample set-padding, we were served a meagre portion. Following one more turn as unoriginal inspirational speaker – yes, Pitbull, music is indeed a “universal language” – and a rousingly inclusive Give Me Everything, Lil Chico wrapped things up after little more than an hour onstage. This dog may be a fast eater, but the show felt more like a TV dinner than a sit-down meal.