Shakira goes where wild things are with "She Wolf"
By Ayala Ben-Yehuda
LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - In Shakira's hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, there's a 15-foot metal statue of her, wearing bell bottoms and strumming a guitar. It was donated by a German sculptor in 2006, in the midst of the singer's wildly successful Oral Fixation world tour, which featured her jaw-dropping belly-dancing and a finale of "Hips Don't Lie" with Wyclef Jean.
Shakira occasionally strummed a glittery guitar during the show, but by the time the statue was put up, she was far from the acoustic pop-rocker she'd been on her 1996 breakthrough album, "Pies Descalzos." And if the statue already was playing catch-up with her image in 2006, it barely captures her now.
Shakira's third English album, "She Wolf," reveals what may be her most club-oriented music to date: electronic pop with strong basslines and prominent world music textures, combined with a dose of in-your-face sex appeal.
"I felt very curious and intrigued about the electro-pop world and everything it has to offer," Shakira told Billboard by phone from her home in the Bahamas. "I wanted to make sure that this album was very bassy and that the kicks hit really hard, and I wanted to concentrate on the beat. But my music, to a certain extent, is very complex -- because I always try to experiment with sounds from other parts of the world."
Shakira produced and wrote the album, teaming with Pharrell Williams on production; other collaborators include Jean; John Hill, who's worked with Santigold; the Bravery's Sam Endicott; and Academy Award winner Jorge Drexler. Keyboardist Albert Menendez also co-wrote a song.
It's one thing to cross over into the non-Latin market, as Shakira did nearly a decade ago. But it's quite another to maintain that crossover, particularly to the degree that Shakira has. She'll follow up her simultaneous worldwide release with a tour promoted by Live Nation, with whom she has a multirights deal (although Epic is releasing the album) that's intended to build her business as a whole.
"For an artist in this day and age, and for an artist who is still early in their career, the challenge is: How do you conquer the world in a new way?" manager Ceci Kurzman asks. "How do you make sure that, now that the barriers have been dropped because of electronic media, how do you make sure that more people than ever can hear your music? There was a time you measured your success by the number of albums sold. And now you have such a broader scope."
Shakira's march to mainstream pop diva-dom began with "Laundry Service," her 2001 English-language album, which has sold more than 3.7 million U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "La Tortura," the first single from her 2005 album "Fijacion Oral, Vol. 1," became the first Spanish-language video to air on MTV without an English-language version.
Shakira cemented her crossover with "Hips Don't Lie," a belated addition to her English-language "Oral Fixation, Vol. 2" album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in at least 10 other countries tracked by Nielsen Music Control. Shakira has sold 50 million albums worldwide, according to her label.
"What tends to happen with Latin stars is that they tend to have one big English-language record or two and then they revert back to making Spanish records," says Rob Stringer, chairman of Columbia/Epic Label Group. "She does a very good job of managing to synergize those two careers. Shakira is competing against iconic female artists and completely standing on her own, but she also has a career in Spanish as well, so she's completely unique in that respect."
In both the Latin and the mainstream worlds, Shakira is been known for clever lyrics and inventive musical fusions -- from tango to bossa nova to Andean flutes to reggaeton. As she did on "Ojos Asi," a Middle Eastern romp with electric guitars from her 1998 album "Donde Estan Los Ladrones?," Shakira looks east once again on "She Wolf."
In addition to the disco-influenced title track, there's "Good Stuff," a synthed-out snake-charmer punctuated by ululating and staccato beats; "Long Time," a percussive midtempo groove with a Roma-like clarinet bridge; and "Why Wait," a dance-floor scorcher by way of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." (Shakira worked on the arrangement with Hossam Ramzy, who had worked on "Kashmir" with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.)
"It's an electronic album generally speaking, but it does have different organic instruments that, combined with the synthesizers, create a different sort of ambience," says the two-time Grammy and seven-time Latin Grammy Award winner. "You've got to put together a nice meal and make sure the spices don't take over the main ingredient. And at the end of the day, it gives a nice flavor in your mouth."
Even with vampires and werewolves being all the rage these days, Shakira says she hadn't heard of "Twilight" until she showed "She Wolf" to Epic president Amanda Ghost -- who in turn made her watch "Twilight." "I loved it, but I also found that it was, coincidentally, very appropriate," the "Harry Potter" fan says. "I think people are craving fantasy."
Shakira delivers that and then some in the "She Wolf" video, which also has a version in Spanish. In both videos, she writhes around in a cage, wearing a flesh-colored leotard and stilettos. Belly-dancing aside, this is a more unabashedly sexed-up presentation. (It also was YouTube users' third-most-favorite music video in August.)
Shakira says the "she wolf" represents her being "a little more in touch with my desires and a little more empowered or encouraged to satisfy those desires and set them free. It's something that just comes with time. I probably would not have written a song like this when I was 20, but I do it now because it's the way I feel today."
A renowned perfectionist, Shakira spent a month trying different mixes of the first single until she was happy with it. When she spoke to Billboard, she was still tweaking mixes on the album at the legendary Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. The studio, where Bob Marley, U2 and the Cure have recorded, drew Shakira to the Bahamas to record and eventually to live.
It was that obsession with production details that made her and Williams a good match. "We work in different ways -- he is very fast and very proactive," Shakira says. "When it comes to production, I think things through a little more and travel different roads before I make a decision or commit to something. I have commitment issues."
One thing she has no trouble committing to is activism on behalf of children living in poverty. Though she's not a protest singer, Shakira hasn't refrained from social commentary in her songs. And her efforts to improve the education and health of Latin America's poorest children have practically made her a nongovernmental organization unto herself.
In November, she'll help present a regional early-childhood education proposal to heads of state at the Ibero-American summit in Portugal. "We have high expectations to get something really concrete for the kids," she says.
The Pies Descalzos (Barefoot) Foundation, which Shakira founded in Colombia when she was 18, opened its fifth school in February (using proceeds from her touring) to serve the country's most impoverished children.
Last year, ALAS -- Fundacion America Latina en Accion Solidaria, the advocacy group founded by Shakira and other Latin artists in 2006 to get governments and private donors to commit to early-childhood development programs on the continent -- held massive televised concerts with performances from two dozen top Latin acts to rally public support for the cause. Shortly before the concerts, ALAS secured a $200 million commitment from Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu and philanthropist Howard Buffett.
Will her international efforts on behalf of early childhood development programs be reflected musically on "She Wolf?"
"My biggest motivation was to make an album that people could just have fun with and forget about their troubles," she says. "I think I've found other outlets that have been very proactive. And I guess when that happens, the music just becomes music, and now I can use it for the purpose it's created for -- to amuse and entertain people and also express other feelings, but things that are more personal. I'm letting music guide me."
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)
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