Thursday, October 19, 2017

album review: 'el dorado' by shakira

Well, this is awkward, and I think an explanation is owed why I'm covering this months after it was released, because given how many times I've said I'm a Shakira fan, you'd think I'd be on top of this...

And yet I've been pretty reticent about reviewing this record and here's why: I don't speak Spanish. I know maybe a few words, I can maybe follow the general gist of it if I try, but I have a hard enough understanding French, and I'm Canadian! And thus when I discovered that Shakira's newest record has only a few English songs on it, I didn't have the same interest, because one of the reasons I like Shakira's songwriting is that her phrasing of English feels distinct and a little offkilter in a cool way. If I wasn't going to get that - and given that I was generally underwhelmed by the lead-off singles - I didn't have the same interest. And it's not even that I'm averse to covering music in a different language - I've covered black metal that's not in English, although you could definitely make the argument that lyrics are generally peripheral when it comes to that genre in comparison with pop. But as I've said in the past, I connect best to music when I can follow or understand the arc of the songs, and I was concerned about that with El Dorado, especially considering Shakira herself admitted uncertainty and writer's block going into it. So yeah, this might be a fairly short review, but my Patrons did laboriously vote to get it to the top of my schedule, so okay, how did it go?

Okay, I'm not going to mince words: after my first two or three listens through this record, the most prominent emotion was disappointment, because El Dorado is definitely not Shakira at her best. She said that she had writer's block going into this project and man, I believe it, because if you're going in expecting the sort of firepower or intensity that used to characterize her best songs, you're not going to get them. Now that's not precisely saying that Shakira's just going through the motions here, as after a few more listens I did warm up to a couple tracks, but there's a reason that outside of diehard fans and a few singles that I've already covered on Billboard BREAKDOWN, nobody is really talking about this record.

Now to Shakira's credit, the singles are by far some of the weakest tracks here, and most of their issues come in production. The squawking chipmunk sound in 'Chantaje' with Maluma, the glitchy mess that was 'Me Enamore', the stiffness behind the otherwise likable 'La Bicicleta' - which for the record was first released as a single nearly a year before the album dropped, and that's before we get songs like 'Trap' on this album, with gratuitous autotune all over Maluma's voice as he croons opposite Shakira trying to sell a song with the desaturated plinking tones, leaden bass, and hi-hats you'd expect in modern trap production! It was at that point on the record I was asking who the hell thought that was a good idea - and then out of nowhere we get a strident electric guitar tone that the mix tries to drown out, probably for being the best damn part of the song! And this goes back to something I've been saying about Shakira for years now: organic melodic grooves with real momentum behind them do wonders for her voice and delivery, and when you pair her with stiff, glitchy production she just sounds lost - and I can't really blame her for it. Take the blocky knock of 'Comme Moi' completely overpowering the drippy blur of guitar, a song that appears twice on the standard issue of this record with one set of lyrics from French rapper Black M and the other from Canadian reggae act MAGIC!, remember them - and the scary thing is that MAGIC! might actually be more tolerable here. Or take 'Perro Fiel', which brings in a more elegant strings backdrop before the blubbery knock of the drum machine comes up, and despite Shakira having decent chemistry with Nicky Jam, she can only do so much with production this stiff. Thankfully, there are some exceptions, but this drags us to the issue of track sequencing: 'Nada' might be a pretty enough power ballad with the elegant strumming and pretty bombastic hook, but why it's the second song of the record I have no idea, especially placed right before 'Chantaje'. Now thankfully there are songs that manage to balance the heavier percussion with real organic melodies: 'Amarillo' has one of the better hooks and stronger grooves, 'Coconut Tree' has some pretty chill languid guitar lines even if the main drum machine feels entirely too stiff, and there's some actual warmth to the Spanish guitar interplay with Prince Royce on 'Deja Vu'... which I discovered was actually previously released on his last album! 

But this then takes us to Shakira herself... and look, she's a beautiful singer and she's perfectly capable of playing to softer cooing tones, she's got a natural expressiveness that's plenty convincing. But when you realize that she's not bringing anything close to the belting power that has anchored her biggest hits, it's hard not to feel like there's something missing, especially when a lot of this production seems to be expecting Shakira to deliver more presence. But I suspect this runs deeper, and that takes us to the songwriting. Now there's a big asterisk hanging over all of this, given that I'm relying on translations that might miss some of the nuance of the original language... but I can't be the only one who finds Shakira a lot more subdued and borderline submissive in her writing as well, right? Sure, there are songs like 'Trap' and 'Chantaje' where she's taking more agency in the situation, but then you get self-flagellation of 'Nada' and 'When A Woman' or 'Deja Vu', or how 'Comme Moi' is so bluntly pessimistic, or how the love songs feel so soft and lacking in real presence... it's a tone that Shakira can sell, but I'm not sure it flatters her as a singer or songwriter. And speaking of that, Shakira's tendency for weird turns of phrase is back in spades regardless of language, with 'Perro Fiel' presenting Nicky Jam as - no joke - like a 'faithful dog', and 'Amarillo' using an extended rainbow metaphor for all the colors of her love for her husband, a relationship that also colors 'Coconut Tree' and 'Toneladas'. But that might be at the root of the problem: not that the love songs are bad, but there isn't a real sense of drama that drives the other tracks! I find myself looking for the conflict or intensity that used to be one of Shakira's biggest draws... and yet it's just not here the way it used to be, which can make a record like this feel a bit uninspired.

And really, the more I think about this record the more it feels less like a project Shakira wanted to make and more something the label wanted to package for an ever-growing-in-popularity Latin music market - and this came out before 'Despacito' ruled the summer! And if you're a diehard Shakira fan, I'm sure this'll hold you over, but I have to be honest and say I just didn't find this all that interesting or compelling - the production choices are by-the-numbers when they aren't just poorly considered, the writing was passable but beneath her best, and Shakira just didn't sound all that engaged. Now granted, her natural charisma is still enough to nudge this up to a very strong 5/10, but if this is passable, it's only barely in that territory. Hate to say it, but unless you're a diehard fan and can appreciate the Spanish more than I can, you're not going to get much out of this - sorry.

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