Review Summary: Shakira: calm, collected, reflective.
Love her or hate her, you have to give Shakira credit for displaying quite a vast range of styles and influences within a commercial pop format. One of the very reasons she gained so much worldwide crossover appeal to begin with is that she could blend numerous (usually quite different) sounds and meld them into one experience. Basically, her style is usually very unmistakable with each album; however, since She Wolf came out back in 2009, things seem to have changed. Despite the world/folk influences on that album, the genre that was even more apparent was electropop; it left a bad taste in many peoples' mouths, and while Sale el Sol contained more of her original Latin dance/pop style, Shakira was clearly shifting gears. And then she joined the singing competition The Voice, which further suggested her increased adherence to and interest in more American mainstream pop music.
With that said, the new self titled release by the Columbian diva comes as both quite a shock and yet somewhat expected at the same time. On one hand, you have a more streamlined sound influenced by the country, dance, and folk rock sounds of today, but the surprise comes in how it's executed. Having typically mixed sentimental balladry with a taste for bombast and high energy in previous recordings, Shakira opts for an unusually earnest approach here. This isn't a gradual thing either... once the fast reggae/hard rock powerhouse "Can't Remember to Forget You" leaves the ears, much of the remaining record consists of a wide variety of folk and country-based ballads. Luckily, "Dare (La La La)" is a catchy-as-hell Brazil-inspired dance number that's placed closer to the middle of the record to break up the softer material. But even then, that very material is done surprisingly well here too.
First off, if you're looking for all of the Latin dance music of Shakira's past successes, this experience will prove to be quite a bitter one. Much of the record consists of slow acoustic ballads, and while reggae and a small handful of other genres even things out slightly, the whole thing is predominantly based around more tender and intimate music. The atmosphere is quiet and pleasant, accentuated by the fact that Shakira doesn't extend herself as much vocally as she normally does; it feels perfect for a nice road trip. Also, the country-inspired songs tend to avoid many of the traps that numerous country stars have fallen into in recent times, primarily the sappy pop-influenced balladry from the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Lady Antebellum. Songs like "23" and "Loca Por Ti," while not completely sparse as they still include a full band accompaniment and clean electric guitar flourishes, are remarkable in the way they let this instrumentation blend with Shakira's highly honest and reflective performances. She does elevate herself in terms of volume and range, but not to the point that the music sounds forced or unconvincing. This is especially true with the other big curveball song "Empire," which ditches the country/folk vibe for a dark ballad in the vein of a rock epic. This is probably the big highlight of her singing here, and she makes sure to go to the greatest reaches of her vocal ability while a dark brooding piano ballad lumbers effectively behind her.
The few issues of the record are definitely worth mentioning, though. First of all, while Blake Shelton is a decent country singer, his performance on the uninspired "Medicine" is bland to the point of sleep-inducing. Also, you may notice that there's a song on here titled "Nunca Me Acuerdo de Olvidarte." Wanna guess what that is? It's a Spanish-sung clone of the opening track... and it's on the damn album itself, not as a bonus track! What a waste of space; exclusively Spanish-speaking customers would most likely buy the full Spanish edition of the album anyway. However, even something that frustrating definitely doesn't ruin the experience provided here. It's a joy to hear Shakira make a more personal and organic collection of songs, one that doesn't seem forced or even without its own share of fun moments as well. She sounds like she truly cares and poured her heart into her songs (and most of them are indeed co-written by her), with the overall result feeling satisfyingly emotional and incredibly fulfilling... something that couldn't be said as strongly about an album like She Wolf.