by Andrew Casillas
Until fairly recently, I considered Shakira to be the closest thing Latin American would have to “our” Prince. Each has a wildly eclectic sound, a willingness to be overtly sexual (both musically and in public), and an underrated musicianship. But as the years have passed, it seems like Shakira has outgrown the Prince comparison. In perspective, Shakira is really “our” Jay Z. Each had a substantial run of highly innovative and highly influential albums, along with a charismatic public persona. Subsequently, the two diverged further and further into their own celebrity, to where their careers are now sustained entirely on their existence as Shakira™ and Jay Z™, corporate entities.
That’s not to say that either artist is stunted from their genius. Indeed, each is still capable of drafting a stunner. Jay Z can go through the motions on his albums all he likes, but when inspired, the dude can seem untouchable (“Empire State of Mind,” “Roc Boys,” “Niggas in Paris”). Shakira, likewise, can still be gracefully sultry (“Antes de las Seis”), popularly singular (“Hips Don’t Lie”), and brilliantly batshit (the still unfuckwithable “Loba”). So we can pine for the days of consecutive instant masterpieces all we want, but those days are over. Instead, both Jay Z and Shakira are hustling to stay relevant as they veer further away from their 20s. Staying relevant in the fucked up world of pop stardom means forcing yourself to become the biggest stars of your pop music niche. Be everywhere, sell everything, evolve from tireless worker to CEO. Blame The Voice and Rocawear all you want, but, without them, Shakira and Jay Z would never get as many opportunities to indulge their musical side.
Going into her second decade as a Multimedia Superstar, Shakira represents Shakira’s attempt to capitalize on the peak of her celebrity following her new roles as a mother and as a judge on America’s highest rated reality show. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Shakira attempts to deliver something for everyone. And in varying ways, the album succeeds at that. First single “Can’t Remember to Forget You” is representative of the parent album’s theme. The Bruno Mars-like blend of The Police and pop radio sheen is simultaneously inoffensive and entirely effective. You feel like you can chart the song’s creation in a boardroom. Regardless, it’s uncompromisingly Shakira, not to mention an opportunity for Rihanna to do more than act as a hook girl. It’s also a great showcase for Shakira as sexually aggressive songstress. Her ferocious yelps during the final chorus are organically erotic in a way that the track’s gratuitously sexed-up music video wishes it could be. Speaking of unnecessarily sexed-up, there’s “Empire,” the album’s second track and second single. There’s a lot to praise for the sheer power balladry of the song, but the heavy metaphors prove too much for something instrumentally over the top already. In fact, it sounds almost like a Shakira parody (notably, “Empire” is one of two songs on Shakira not written by the album’s namesake).
The first half of the album is shockingly derivative, even if there’s some fruit. “You Don’t Care About Me” is a really nice slice of Gotye-rock, and “Cut Me Deep” is a deft bit of pop reggae. However, the less we speak of official World Cup anthem “Dare (La La La)” the better. I’ll just mention that it’s pretty much a re-write of “La Copa de la Vida” set to the tune of “Spice Up Your Life.” Shakira’s second half is where things get interesting on a macro level. Musically it’s a mixed bag. There’s the big Blake Shelton duet “Medicine,” an all too obvious attempt at country music radio airplay; there’s “The One Thing,” our obligatory motherhood track; and a few other tracks (“23,” “Spotlight,” “Broken Record”) that reveal Shakira’s (or at least her PR team’s) greatest influence: Taylor Swift's Red.
This makes sense considering the album’s latent purpose: in order to dominate the market, why not look to who’s already dominating the market? That the Swift-inspired numbers don’t marginalize Shakira are a testament to her strengths as a singer (“Broken Record” is actually quite fabulous). But they’re also way too straightforward. Even when her previous English album She Wolf (a lesser record than Shakira) failed, it wasn’t because Shakira played it safe. Indeed, that album was almost too extreme in its early adoption of EDM-inspired globo-pop. Shakira is still a good pop record and something that she can base another 25 years of a career on, but hopefully Shakira can strike a balance between these last two records going forward, or risk lapsing into Jay Z’s current phase as the rap game 1981 Rolling Stones—20 years going strong with only 20% of the effort.
And what if Shakira ends up lapsing? Meaning, in effect, only making music as an excuse to go on tour and on television and keeping the coffers full. Would it still be important to cover artists like these? It certainly wouldn’t be because Shakira needed the exposure or our recognition. The reason that Shakira’s career is worthy of continued critical evaluation is because she represents the breakthrough that we’d love any of our favorite artists to achieve. Unlike other crossover stars like Ricky Martin or Juanes, she didn’t achieve a sudden lapse in popularity or stagnate at minor celebrity-hood (indeed, Juanes seems sadly resigned to a life as the token Latin musician at every Grammy ceremony whenever Gloria Estefan is unavailable). What Shakira does with her career, or rather, what she chooses to do with her career, is instructive for what happens whenever any of our favorite artists break through. And there’s the key: for all intents and purposes, Shakira seems fully in charge of her career. And she’s still damn good at being Shakira. Even if she’s lapsed into the Shakira™ stage of her career, she can still lead the way for the next Latin American critical darling turned superstar. And if that leaves you feeling a bit discouraged, don’t blame Shakira or Jay Z, blame the system.