Tuesday, March 25, 2014

album review: 'shakira' by shakira

Oh, I've been looking forward to this review since the beginning of the year.

See, if we were to go back twelve years to 2002 and look at my list of my top 10 best hit songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart... well, the first one would be Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' and the second would be 'Where Were You', Alan Jackson's heartbreaking song about 9/11 and really the best song not written by Bruce Springsteen about that tragedy, but the third on my list would 'Whenever, Wherever' by Shakira, an artist of which I've been a fan since she's crossed over to English radio in the early 2000s. And looking back on her massively successful career, I don't feel any shame whatsoever in saying that Shakira is the sort of pop star I really do enjoy. Not only is she the main writer of a lot of her own music - and a pretty good one at that - she's also the sort of pop star who can blend genres effectively, has a distinctive voice and sound, and also has buckets of raw charisma. She works along a similar line of alpha female sexuality that Beyonce does, but I've always thought Shakira has more emotional range and always seemed to be having more fun as a pop singer.

Plus, she's weird - and I mean that as a compliment. Between the odd assortment of instrumentation she routinely uses and her frequently bizarre lyrical choices, I'm always a little perplexed whenever I cover a Shakira album, because while she might tackle conventional pop subject matter, she's going to do it in her way, and damn everyone else. And yet, she's been quiet for a while, because after she released She-Wolf in 2009 and Sale el Sol in 2010 in Spanish, she took some time off, half to have a baby, half to work as a coach on The Voice, and half because she changed labels to RCA Records. On the one hand, I'm happy to see a new record from Shakira... but on the other hand, there are significantly more names in the writing credits than I'd usually like to see on a Shakira album, plus some collaborators that don't leave me that enthused, including Rihanna and country artist Blake Shelton of all people, who seems to make it his job to collaborate with everyone who shows up on The Voice with him. So, how is this new self-titled album from Shakira?

Goddamn it, I wanted to like this more than I do. Let me preface this by saying that this Shakira album is by no means bad, and a lot of her strengths as a pop star are here... but man, this album should have been better. What's worse is the source of my disappointment: this isn't a bad Shakira album, it's a conventional Shakira album, one where she apparently has taken more of a backseat to other producers and songwriters, and it has led to a pop album that lacks a lot of the idiosyncratic touches that made me a fan of hers. Again, not bad, but a long way from great or her best.

So let's talk about the elements that I did like on this album, and start with Shakira herself. As always, she's a great singer, she has a lot of charisma and presence, and she continues to showcase a wide emotional range. Furthermore, while there are hints of unneeded vocal effects, for the most part Shakira still sounds organic and powerful, and when the instrumentation is allowed to match her, the songs are quite strong. And on top of that, it's not like the good thematic elements of Shakira's material have gone away - she's always had a ton of raw confidence and I've tended to like how she's always hunting for a man who can match as an equal partner. And more often than not on this album, having found such a man in Spanish football player Gerard Piqué, her love songs have a pleasant, emotionally satisfied quality to them that does come across as sincere, if not exactly dramatic. That's not saying Shakira isn't capable of making her more dramatic songs work, and when the songs have a little more of an edge, she's more than a capable fit.

And this is where we run into the first problem: the instrumentation and production is nowhere near what it needs to be to match Shakira's presence behind the microphone. The synths are thin and fuzzy, the guitars are either acoustic or processed flat into the upper range, and outside of some occasional steel drums, the percussion never has any weight or ponderous power. Well, 'Empire' comes close, but that song feels like it's adhering to standard percussion-driven modern pop and that's not a great fit for the lyrics about mind-blowing epic interstellar sex. What's worse is that the production feels very synthetic and the selection of instruments and sounds seems a lot less diverse than on previous albums - neither of which are good signs when you're drawing on reggae horns and Spanish guitar tones, which normally need more of the mix to really grow and swell. And as much as I like the rougher rock tone in 'Can't Remember To Forget You', it still isn't as tight or memorable as Shakira's more eclectic and interesting work.

And it doesn't help matters that most of Shakira's collaborators have nowhere near the presence or texture to match her. Rihanna fares the best, but Shakira has a lot more presence and it's not exactly an equal balance. It gets even worse with the new Canadian reggae-pop band Magic!, fronted by a man who is most well-known for writing songs for Chris Brown, Pitbull, and Justin Bieber. Either way, his quivering tenor is no match for Shakira, who blows him completely off the stage. But then we have Blake Shelton, and while you tell he's trying harder than he has in a while, they don't have a lot of chemistry and his brand of mellow pop country is not a good fit for Shakira. Then again, she's a better fit for that than 'Dare (La La La)', the Dr. Luke-produced disaster of a modern dance track that only seems to confirm my suspicions his talents for a good hook are fading fast. Shakira tries her best to make the thudding, overproduced clunker with cheap synths and no discernible texture to work, but it sounds like a rejected J. Lo track and is easily the worst on this album.

But maybe the lyrics save this album? Well, here's the problem: for as much as Shakira is writing about topics she knows well and delivering a fair amount of emotional nuance along the way, the songwriting is lacking. Not the technical songwriting - that, for the most part, is pretty good - but there's less flavour here than usual. There are fewer lyrics that contain wit or offbeat metaphors or that element of weirdness that I used to love about Shakira's songwriting. There are a few moments here and there - I like that 'Empire' describes sex with her in obscenely hyperbolic yet completely appropriate terms, I liked the intimate detail in 'Broken Record' that made the song feel real, I liked the 'approaching disaster' vibe of 'Can't Remember To Forget You' that comes with only remembering the good things about an ex before everything blows up in their face, and there are a few lines in 'Cut Me Deep' that do illustrate the hurtful aggression that comes out in fights with a partner. But beyond that, while the poetry is passable, it's not special - there are few lines that only Shakira could come with in the vein of her past work, and it ends up making this record a lot less memorable than it should be.

Look, this album is still passable, and at the end of the day, if you're a Shakira fan like I am, it'll still be worth your time to give this album a listen. But don't go in expecting material as good as even her last English album because this album really just falls into the ranks of unmemorable records from modern pop starlets. And it really bugs the hell out of me I have to say that about an artist I really like, as it's really Shakira's presence on this album that saves it from being worse. So in the end, it's a 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan. Otherwise, I recommend going back to any of her earlier English albums - they're all better than this.

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