Shakira has always been a bit of an unconventional pop star, largely because her paths to success have been about as unconventional as they get.
It all started when Shakira Ripoll was a kid growing up in Colombia, a love of poetry and performing eventually leading her to audition to become a fashion model — where instead she got signed as a Sony recording artist and then had her first album released when she was only 13 years old. By the time she was 17, she was finishing high school and starring in a soap opera (El Oasis) after refusing to promote her second album, whose production she thought was tampered with without her consent. Her third and fourth albums (1996’s Pies Descalzos and 1998’s ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones?, respectively) became huge international hits, eventually leading her to becoming the first artist in the history of the network to record a Spanish-language MTV Unplugged special, the 2000 spin-off album of which went on to become a best-seller. Yes, Shakira’s rock-inflected take on Latin pop helped establish her profile around the world, but it was that sole Unplugged performance that poised her on the brink of success in America, as her unique sound came off more as a new direction for Latin music rather than taking part in the then-dying Latin pop movement of the late ’90s.
Although 2001’s Laundry Service (her English language debut) proved to be a big Stateside hit — spawning the monster singles “Wherever, Whenever” and “Underneath Your Clothes” — it was her double-album follow up in 2005 that put Shakira in a strange commercial quagmire. The Spanish-language Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 was never meant to be a huge US best-seller, but the Alejandro Sans-assisted single “La Tortura” became an unexpected Top 40 hit (no doubt aided by its steamy music video), and the album wound up debuting in fourth place on the album chart — a historic and record-breaking move for a Spanish-only album. Epic record execs were no doubt excited by Vol. 1‘s surprise success, a strong indicator for Oral Fixation, Vol. 2‘s commercial prospects; but, surprisingly, that album didn’t do nearly as well as the first, despite being released at the peak of the 2005 holiday shopping season and receiving heavy promotion.
So what the hell went wrong?
Shakira has always made a point of co-writing all of her own songs, forcing herself to learn English so that there would be no way her lyrics could be misinterpreted in translation. Though always a fan of overly-poetic verses, the Vol. 2 lead single “Don’t Bother” was just a flat-out train wreck, suffering from excessively wordy character descriptions and a guitar-driven chorus that just didn’t have the same punch in a landscape that was still recovering from Kelly Clarkson’s immortal “Since U Been Gone” (and all of the knockoffs it spawned). Despite the massive marketing campaign, the second volume of Oral Fixation just wasn’t selling as well as its Latino counterpart, and Epic — wanting to avoid a public bomb at all costs — hired Wyclef Jean to reengineer one of his older tracks into a little ditty called “Hips Don’t Lie”, which went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2006 and ultimately rescuing Shakira’s career at the last possible second.
So why all the backstory? Simple: because history has a funny way of repeating itself.
She Wolf is clearly designed to be Shakira’s “club” album, and she has said in interviews that she scoured the world for some of the hottest beats she could find for it, even if the end result was just her working with the Neptunes on four tracks and Wyclef Jean on one other (producers John Hill and Amanda Ghost fill out the rest). Though the furiously-catchy title track serves as a surprisingly-effective 21st century update to the disco sound of yore, Epic knew it was in trouble when the radio-friendly single failed to crack the Top 10 and more press was being made about the shot-by-shot male remake of its music video (simply dubbed “He Wolf“) than the album itself. Epic then pulled a fast one by taking Shakira’s Lil’ Wayne-featuring collaboration for Timbaland’s Shock Value II album (“Give It Up to Me”) and making it the second single in America, stripping it from Shock Value II so that it could be added onto a redone US version of She Wolf and ultimately delaying the album’s stateside release date by a month, even as the international releases still went on as planned.
In truth, Epic probably made the right move, as She Wolf is the least Shakira-sounding record in the Latin diva’s entire catalog. Though trying out new sounds and styles isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a chart-topping megastar of her stature, it’s pretty hard to digest a disc whose “new styles” actually sound like the “old trends” of the last three years. “Why Wait” relies heavily on the Neptunes’ trademark “dry drum” sound, using their old textural paintbrushes more as a crutch than a base for innovation, just as how “Good Stuff” comes so dangerously close to sounding like a Cora Corman song that it almost borders on parody (the xylophones on the chorus sound like they were ripped directly from Toto’s “Africa”). As is par with the course for a Shakira disc, some metaphors don’t work very well (the chorus to “Gypsy” is simply “I’m a gypsy / Are you coming with me? / I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me”). Plus, some of her lyrics remain just otherworldly strange (like how on the pre-chorus to “Mon Amour”, Shakira states that “I hope you freeze under the Eiffel Tower / So you end up throwing in the towel”, apropos of nothing before it). Though a certain novelty value can be extracted from these phrasings, the truth of the matter is that they simply don’t add up to a satisfying listening experience.
Yet She Wolf is not a lost cause by any means; there are, in fact, many stellar moments mixed with the misfires. “She Wolf” is immediately followed by “Did It Again”, a bawdy little electro-number where the Neptunes get everything right, as bubbly synths and military drum patterns surround Shakira’s vixen-as-tease lyrics — arguably Shakira’s strongest suit — the whole thing perfectly apt for a weekend club excursion. The Wyclef Jean track “Spy”, meanwhile, carries on the disco-update theme of “She Wolf”, as thundering string quartets swirl around Shakira’s call-and-response vocals with Jean, the whole thing coming off like an alternate-universe rendition of Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven”, anchored by Shakira’s sexy duck sounds at the beginning (no, really). Throw in the pulsating John Hill rock number “Men in This Town” (about wondering where the hell any good dates are), and you have some of the most guilty-pleasure pop outings this side of Lady Gaga, weird-ass outfits be damned.
In the end, though, She Wolf splits down the middle pretty easily, half the tracks exuding a wry sexuality and a retro-rocking stylistic template while the other half dabble with already-passed production fads and remarkably incoherent metaphors. Much like the rest of her career, this is an album that has gone through an unconventional journey to achieve surprising, unconventional results: just don’t be too surprised that the backstory is more interesting than the finished product.