As you can probably tell from some of my previous posts, I'm slightly obsessed with Shakira. "Laundry Service" remains one of my favourite albums of all time and I seem to be the only person who genuinely liked "Oral Fixation Vol. 2" - even though it failed to live up to the genius of Volume 1 (the sublime Spanish version). I was expecting huge things from her third English language album and Shakira delivers. Kind of. Don't get me wrong - I LOVE "She Wolf". It's one of the best pop albums you will hear all year (definitely in my top 5 for 2009 thus far) and it contains a handful of songs that rank right up there with "Día Especial", "Fool", "Las de la Intuición", "Underneath Your Clothes", "Te Dejo Madrid" and "Don't Bother" as Shakira classics. However, there is one major blight on this otherwise gorgeous set of pop tunes - the involvement of The Neptunes.
Pharrell seriously needs to back the fuck off before he drags any more divas into his web of urban mediocrity. At their best The Neptunes create fresh and interesting soundscapes that clearly inspire the people they work with (see Gwen's "Hollaback Girl" and Shakira's "Did It Again") but more often than not I hear the same old recycled beats and tired hooks (ie. Madonna's entire "Hard candy" album). The four (six if you count the Spanish versions) Neptunes produced tracks are not bad by any means. They just could have been recorded by any old skank. It's almost like Shakira has been lost in the process of making something American radio will play. Worse still, the songs don't sit very well with the rest of the album, which is adventurous, brave and eclectic - everything we've come to know and expect from Colombia's greatest export. Here's my review:
She Wolf - A+
I'm starting to feel just a little abused like a coffee machine in an office
I don't think anyone was expecting Shakira to return with a disco-tinged electro-pop anthem about lycanthropy and office furniture! It really shouldn't work (and sometimes I think it doesn't quite gel) but I love the track's eccentricity and fearlessness. Shakira isn't afraid to try new things and experiment with her sound. And her bravery is rewarded on this. John Hill's production carries the sometimes clumsy phrasing along perfectly and Shakira's lyrics and camp howls are an endless source of joy. Don't even get me started on the video, which is disturbs and amuses me in equal measure!
Did It Again - A+
Did it again
Damn, I got it all wrong
But it felt so right
I can't believe it
This song hits a little too close to home for me at the moment, which probably explains why I've played it about thirty times in the past 48 hours. Of all the Neptunes produced tracks, this is the clear stand out. "Did It Again" perfectly balances the electronic elements with small urban flourishes. The layering of beats and samples is dazzling and there are a million and one little hooks to draw you in. Best of all, this is still very much a Shakira song. Her confessional lyrics are perfectly showcased and her unique brand of melancholy is unmistakable. "Did It Again" reminds me of a slightly more upbeat version of Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right", which is a huge compliment.
Long Time - B-
Hold me, show me all the talent God has given you
I think I'm being overly generous giving this a B- (C+ would be more accurate) but it's inoffensive filler that happily bounces along like everything else The Neptunes have ever produced and I have a soft (hard?) spot for songs about frenzied fucking. I don't want to sound like a broken record but my problem with this is that it could have been recorded by anyone. There's not a reference to unshaved legs or a bad metaphor to be heard. Shakira is completely MIA.
Why Wait - B
Why wait for later?
I'm not a waiter
Everything that I said about "Long Time" basically applies to "Why Wait". The only reason I've given it a slightly higher rating is for the subtle Eastern elements that litter the track and for the chunkier beats. It's nice. It's just not Shakira.
Good Stuff - B+
I'm not gonna miss out on the good stuff
The grass is much greener with us on it
The last Neptunes production (phew!) is mercifully one of their best. "Good Stuff" is another club banger (in the American sense of the term) but what separates this from "Long Time" and "Why Wait" is the genuinely catchy chorus. I also love the quirky splashes of accordion and, if I'm not mistaken, I can even hear some tinkering on a xylophone! There's something wonderfully Latin about this track that should endear it to old school fans. Breezy and beautiful.
Men In This Town - A+
Where are all the men in this town?
What's a girl supposed to do?
Shakira, you're preaching to the choir. I've been asking myself the same question for years! Amazing and highly accurate lyrics aside, the great thing about "Men In This Town" is the fact that it represents the only truly electro track on the album. I can only imagine how brilliant "She Wolf" would have turned out if Shakira had pursued this sound further. It suits her perfectly and brilliantly showcases her quirky sensibility. John Hill's production is a revelation and I've decided that Kylie needs to hire him to helm "XI". By the way, am I hallucinating or does she really say "I never dreamed that I'd come here to be the next (Angelina) Jolie"?
Gypsy - A+
I'm a gypsy, are you coming with me?
I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me
Now this is an unexpected delight. Hiding among all the urban pop tunes and dance anthems is this sweet little guitar pop gem that wouldn't sound out of place on "Laundry Service" or "Oral Fixation Vol. 2". Co-written and co-produced by Amanda Ghost (who wrote "Disappear", "Ave Maria" and "Satellites" for Beyoncé's amazing "Sasha Fierce" album), "Gypsy" captures the essence of Shakira better than any other track on the album - perhaps with the exception of "Mon Amour". It's floaty, pretty, slightly weird and always engaging. I doubt this will ever be released as a single but it's already rocking the Shakira playlist on my Ipod.
Spy (Featuring Wyclef Jean) - B+
Blinds are see through
Let your mind go and imagine that I kiss you
Unfortunately, this is no "Hips Don't Lie". Instead of the upbeat party anthem I was expecting, "Spy" is a slinky urban groove about Shakira flirting with a stalker/peeping tom! It took a couple of listens but now I think it's great. The melody is gorgeous and I love the demented chorus. There's also a touch of old school R'n'B about this track, which makes it stand out from the rest of the album. Ba ba ba ba!
Mon Amour - A+
And I every night I pray that you don't knock her up
Cause I still want to be the mother of your child
What can you say about a song that opens with that couplet? Well, other than declare it a work of lyrical genius! "Mon Amour" reminds me a little of the hugely underrated "Hey You" from "Oral Fixation Vol. 2". It's bursting with crunchy guitars, drenched in ska and contains some of the best/worst lyrics ever recorded. The song even ends with Shakira welcoming passengers on a flight to hell! I love everything about "Mon Amour" and it makes me miss the slightly more varied sound palette of her old material. Again, it would be commercial suicide to release this as a single but I think it's essential Shakira.
Give It Up To Me (Featuring Lil Wayne and Timbaland) - F
You can go up my crane, girl
And imma go down that drain, girl
I should start by pointing out that this is mercifully not on the Australian or European versions of the album. It's a last minute addition to the delayed American release and according to reports will be the second single in America. This is a pathetic attempt to score a US hit and I can barely listen to the track without gagging on the stench of desperation. "Give It Up To Me" is little more than a rehash of Timbaland's "Give It To Me" with Shakira filling in for Nelly Furtado. The song is catchy as hell but Shakira is not a disposable urban nobody like Ciara or Keri Hilson. This is just demeaning.
Lo Hecho Está Hecho - A+
The Spanish version of "Did It Again".
Años Luz - B
The Spanish version of "Why Wait".
Loba - A+
"She Wolf" sounds even better in Spanish. Fact.
So where does that leave us? "She Wolf" is a fantastic album but it's not the triumph I was hoping for. It's definitely marked improvement on "Oral Fixation Vol. 2", I just wish Shakira had worked with John Hill on more tracks and left The Neptunes to aging has-beens like Madonna. My other concern is the lack of standout singles. There are at least half a dozen great songs but nothing I can imagine burning up the charts - perhaps with the exception of "Did It Again" and "Men In This Town" (at least in Australia and the UK). That has to be a worry for an album that was clearly constructed with the aim of being played on American radio. I still think "She Wolf" puts recent albums by Mariah, Britney and P!nk to shame - cementing Shakira's place near the top of the pop ladder. I just hope she's more true to herself next time around.