Everything you need to know about Flo Rida, the king of the digital download, can be found on the rapper's left pectoral muscle, which just happens to be the size of a canned ham. There, among inky homages to James Brown and Ray Charles, you'll find a tattoo of Sammy Davis Jr. If that sounds kind of screwy — a tough hip-hopper idolizing the one-eyed Rat Packer? — well, the unlikely hero worship actually makes sweet sense.
Flo Rida (a.k.a. 29-year-old Miami Gardens native Tramar Dillard) is built like he could take Mike Tyson 12 rounds. He brags of a thuggish upbringing; he dutifully earns the parental advisory sticker slapped on his great new album, R.O.O.T.S. And yet, strip away the requisite posturing, and Flo Rida is a crowd pleaser, a born entertainer, a guy who just performed on American Idol. He knows what audiences want; he knows how far to push it. He is — with a wink and a nod to Sammy Davis Jr. — a Hard Candy Man.
In 2008, Flo Rida came out of nowhere with a curious grocery list: "Apple Bottom Jeans, boots with the furrrr." That, of course, was the killer hook to breakout hit Low, from Flo's debut album Mail on Sunday. The top download of the year, Low was brilliant in its synthy bumps and humps. It was naughty but charming, and it slyly repeated both chorus and verse to get you addicted.
But Flo Rida was no one-hit wonder. Right Round, the first single from R.O.O.T.S., was downloaded 636,000 times its initial week of release, a sales record. Sampling Dead or Alive's 1985 hit You Spin Me Round (Like a Record Player), the song pays saucy tribute to an exotic dancer: "From the top of the pole, I watch her go down, she got me throwin' my money around." Okay, it's not exactly Mr. Bojangles. And yet there's a goofy sincerity to the electro-hopping track, which features myriad hooks, Flo's rapid delivery and lyrics that border on the Seussian (that is, if the Cat in the Hat worked at Mons Venus).
Flo Rida could have retired on the money he's made as a two-time download champ. And yet he longs to be a full-fledged artist, one who sells albums as well as songs. R.O.O.T.S. is packed with potential hits, sturdy songs produced for mass enjoyment. The delicious Jump is a duet with Nelly Furtado, and while the wee Canuck la-la-las, Flo Rida commands his audience to get hopping. Gotta Get It (Dancer) revisits the stripper theme, but this time with more compassion for a hard-working gal. It's like a modern version of She Works Hard for the Money (that is, if Donna Summer worked at Mons Venus).
A smattering of special guests shows up on the album. Besides Furtado, there's Ne-Yo, Akon, Wyclef Jean. (Katy Perry sings the hook on the single release of Right Round, but the album version features Kesha.) Despite the help from his pals, this is Flo Rida's work. He's not as effective when he slows down his signature velocity; the title track strives for meaning, but meanders. Still, each song offers a different sound; no Low retreads here. And Flo Rida is a talented enough rapper and writer to be considered a novelty act.
In a blah sea of rap and hip-hop, the tireless, hard-working Flo Rida stands out. You can credit lot of other factors to his wild success: weak competition, a need for brainless fun in these recessionary times. But me? I'm thanking Sammy Davis Jr. for the party album of the year.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.