A 10-years younger Shakira appears on the cover of “¿Dónde Están los Ladrones?”—the Spanish-language album that fixed for a permanent star in the global pop stratosphere—in dark dreads and muddied hands. Her face is simply made-up and her gaze inquisitive and earnest. The album’s title appears to be handwritten.
A very different Shakira is pictured on the album art of “She Wolf,” though its structure is precisely the same—a simple portrait of the artist directly facing the listener. On “She Wolf,” her hair is Brigitte Bardot, all tousled and blonde, spilling over deeply smoked eyes. The lips are an unsubtle fuchsia, slightly parted as though in invitation. Her bodice dips low and reveals flesh that is too glowing and flawless not to be heavily airbrushed. The image is easy on the ojos, to be sure, but also too easy artistically. There was something poetic about the imperfect image on “¿Dónde Están los Ladrones?”, to go along with the suffering and quirky songs. On the cover of “She Wolf,” she is not a poetess but a poetette, little more than a two-bit Britney.
This is a shame. Shakira has ever been the thinking man’s Britney (though not too deeply thinking), several steps above the impoverished dregs of robotized glamour-pop. What set her apart were her siren vocals, and the lyrics those vocals would belt out—lyrics crafted by a fledgling English speaker, peculiar and sometimes puzzling. She is still thankfully in ownership of these gifts, singing lines like “Why wait for later? / I’m not a waiter” and using words like “lycanthropy” (destined to be among the most-searched definitions on Google this month). But the album is mostly uninspired and frenetically overproduced. Shakira manages just barely to keep afloat over the wash of clubby electro-pop, but her barge is not a secure one and tends to sink.
This pleasure-cruise, a disco boat for all-night dancing hosted by a funny Colombian in a belly shirt, goes under on such songs as “Why Wait.” It opens excitingly enough, with five counts of electronic pulsing reminiscent of the beginning to Kelis’s “Milkshake,” but quickly grows tiresome. The faux-Arabian exotica to which the singer is so devoted as a reminder of her Lebanese heritage explains its expected appearance here, but adds little. Neither is the voice as convincing on this track as in her past music, meandering listlessly, as bare of feeling as the droning machine drumbeat supporting it.
The song’s theme, one of sexual heat and animal yearning, is the predominant one of the album. This sentiment is of course nothing new from Shakira—the video of 2005’s “La Tortura” found her writhing in black oil—but it is disappointing that so few tracks here stray from the boudoir. A she wolf, after all, does more than lust. Could she not have explored the implications of traveling in a pack, or the “endangered species” of the songwriting chanteuse? These are questions the album does not care to answer.
When she does delve into the figure of the she wolf, on the album’s title track, Shakira is at her most successful. It begins with a halting, funky bass line, builds with high-pitched tones like signals from a groovy erotic spaceship, and ends with strings, dramatic and glorious. All this as she sings, pants, and howls, making everyone happy. It attains something close to a pop symphony, and while the drop from “She Wolf” to the rest of the songs on the album is a perilously steep one, at least this peak grazes the very moon and comes dressed in a flesh-colored leotard. Watch the video; it will give you joy.