It's late on a Wednesday afternoon, and a table in the foyer of Westlake Recording Studios in West Hollywood is laden with goodies: chocolate chip cookies, hummus and chips and a bottle of Patron Silver tequila with a card that reads, "Welcome back, Shakira!"

But Shakira isn't celebrating just yet. Her first album in four years - and first since her son, Milan (with soccer star Gerard Pique), was born in January 2013 - will be released in five weeks, and it's not finished. Shakira sits inside a studio, ramrod straight, listening to final mixes, taking notes on a yellow legal pad and making last-minute tweaks - lower the vocals here, raise the tambourine there - even though everything is due today, no ifs, ands or buts. Her curly blond hair is tied back messily beneath a black leather cap, revealing a smooth, golden-skinned face devoid of makeup that looks far younger than her 37 years, despite the intentness of her demeanor.

Shakira has labored over albums since she was 18, when she put behind the bland pop she had been releasing since 13 to make her breakthrough record, 1996's "Pies Descalzos." Since then, she has achieved global stardom and recognition unprecedented for a Latin-born act. But Shakira is a crucial release, the first under a Live Nation deal - signed in 2012 for a reported $30 million - that has the concert giant issuing her recordings jointly with Sony via RCA and Sony Latin Iberia.

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"It's been two-and-a-half years of making songs, trashing them, doing them again, doing eight versions of each song, having a baby, doing "The Voice," coming back to the studio, reconnecting with my songs," she says, alternating sips from a bottle of green juice with Kraft Caramels, her vice to relieve pressure. As the afternoon progresses, the caramels inside her bag dwindle to none.

Green juice and candy - it's a small contradiction but the sort on which Shakira thrives. There are splits between her Latin roots and her mainstream stardom, her Spanish and her English (which she learned specifically to make her first U.S. album in 2001), her sex appeal and her activism (education is her issue, and she has met with President Obama at the White House and spoken at Harvard and Oxford, not stops for dilettantes). And now you can add a split between her domesticity and her stardom. In three days, she will fly to her native Colombia to inaugurate a sixth school funded through her Pies Descalzos (Barefoot) Foundation. Then, after nearly two months away, she will return to Barcelona, Spain, where she lives with Pique.

"Sometimes I yearn to stay at home with Gerard and Milan," she says. "For so long I decided to have what I have now, this family, that it's logical for me to feel divided. A part of me - well, all of me - wants to be with them all the time and be a housewife. But there's another part of me that still wants to make music and that's still pleased with success. I won't deny it. I know it sometimes sounds almost immoral to admit you like success, but I like it -- I like it."

And she intends to hold on to it.

CHANGING CHANNELS

In a pop world where an artist can't assume that her previous audience is going to be there for her next single, Shakira is pursuing new fans, even as she strives to remain faithful to the Latin base that has stood by her through the years.

So in November 2012, while pregnant, she began filming her first turn as a coach on NBC's "The Voice." She returns for the current season - the first two episodes, Feb. 24 and March 3, attracted an average of 15.7 million viewers - and her album will launch a few weeks before Voice goes to live shows. She also has worked to connect with younger pop fans by teaming with Rihanna (both are managed by Roc Nation) for the first single from Shakira, "Can't Remember to Forget You," which reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and racked up an impressive 172 million worldwide views on YouTube. Maximizing her reach, Shakira courts the country audience thanks to a duet with fellow Voice coach Blake Shelton.

Shakira steps out of the studio - shutting the door behind her so the music won't distract her - to talk about all of this. When she does, we're face to face with the snack table. The cookies and Patron don't offer much temptation, but the hummus and chips do.

Her hand hovers in midair. The baby weight is long gone, and not a gram of fat protrudes from her blue-and-red checkered shirt or fitted ripped gray jeans. This is the result of a seven-day-a-week workout regimen that alternated sports - basketball, boxing and tennis - every day. "The gym is too demanding for someone who already has so many demands," she says with a shrug. "I want to do something fun, and sports trim me down as much as the gym. Tennis is great because I spend an hour moving and concentrating on that little yellow ball. It's great therapy."

But there has been no time for tennis since "Voice" started shooting, and she worries about the calories. This is the not-so-glamorous side of a modern pop star's life: constant work and constant workouts that only intensify over time. In an era of continually declining music sales, the bigger one gets, the harder one must strive to grow, or hold on to, what one has.

"What's helped me cope is simplifying my process," she says, finally digging into the hummus (after adding extra olive oil). "I can sometimes dilate on things eternally and stay in the studio long into the night. But having a baby and a family forced me to return home sooner." It's why this album marks the first time she hasn't written or co-written all of the tracks. Although she previously has collaborated with songwriters, in the past, she hasn't fielded finished compositions, in this case submitted by pros who write for Pitbull, Chris Brown and Britney Spears. "I've perhaps delegated a little better - I loosened the reins a bit - although I was still totally involved in the production and arrangements of each of the songs. But also ... Ay!" she interrupts herself midsentence. "They came to visit me! Ay, gordo, mi amor!"

 

 

Shakira photographed at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, CA on February 12, 2014Joe Pugliese

The gordo in question - or "chubby one," a common term of endearment in Colombia - is Milan, a tiny bundle of energy with plump cheeks, dark eyes and shaggy hair who bounds into the room, looking adorable in jeans and a blue-and-yellow plaid shirt.

Shakira leaps to her feet and swoops him up into her arms, brings him close and inhales him for a second before he pushes back and looks at her, wide-eyed with delight, hands reaching for her face. Shakira laughs in pleasure, and for a moment the global superstar falls away.

"Daddy wanted to talk to you on face-chat," she says excitedly, tucking a stray curl behind her ear before she dials in an attempt to look more presentable. There's a nine-hour time difference between here and Spain, and Pique, who trains every day, is fast asleep but instantly alert when he hears Shakira and Milan. Not so Milan, who can't grasp why Daddy is here but not here. He soon bolts out of the room in search of new adventures.

Says Shakira, "The only thing he likes on TV is watching Gerard play soccer."

'WAKA WAKA' FLAME

Gerard, Gerard, Gerard. The name comes up often, unbidden.

Shakira is proud of him, unabashedly so. Goes to the stadium in Barcelona with Milan to watch his daddy play and alternates between suffering and screaming her head off.

"They had a match yesterday against Manchester City, and he scored a goal and my heart stopped," she confides. "They annulled his goal, which was totally unfair. I was waiting for him to dedicate the goal to me."

Pique always dedicates his goals to Shakira, crossing his arms across his chest and flashing the peace sign with both hands, the extended fingers symbolizing their joint Feb. 2 birthdays. "That's how he won me over," she recalls. "During the World Cup, he'd say, 'If I score a goal, I'll dedicate it to you.' But we weren't dating then."

That was in 2010, when Shakira recorded "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)," featuring a cameo by a then-23-year-old Pique, 10 years her junior. And "23" is the first track she plays this afternoon, a beautiful guitar-based song she wrote for him. "Hey, do you believe in destiny?" she asks in the chorus. "Cause I do as I did then, when you were only 23."

The song ends with a chuckle by Milan, who happened to make his way into the studio as she was recording the track. It's one of many personal details on an album full of them - including a song written for Milan and one performed in Catalan for Pique - that attempts to capture the many things Shakira is today.

NEXT PAGE: Shakira Goes Country 'I Was So Nervous. You Have No Idea'

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