Shakira Returns With New Album, Steamy Rihanna Video, Country Duet: Cover Story

Joe Pugliese

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

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.

Shakira First Appeared in the March 15 Issue of Billboard -- Click Here to Get a Copy

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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.


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!"



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."


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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"The design behind this album was to break globally, not just in the Latin markets but to put her on top of the charts everywhere in the world, especially in the U.S.," says Tom Corson, president and COO of RCA Records, who is working "hand in glove" with Sony Latin Iberia on the global release of the album, which launches in all territories the week of March 20. Labels and stars increasingly are operating with a global perspective, but Shakira has taken that approach since 2001, when her English-language debut, Laundry Service, made her the only artist born and raised in Latin America to engineer a global crossover. Laundry Service was the seventh-best-selling album in the world in 2002, according to International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, and sold 3.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"Engineered" is the right word for that accomplishment. "It's hard to generate a crossover because generally speaking, every country in the world listens to either local repertoire or music in English," explains Afo Verde, the chairman and CEO of Sony Music in Latin America, Spain and Portugal, who has worked with Shakira in some capacity since the beginning of her career. Shakira was a sensation in Latin America, a dark-haired pop rocker who reminded some of Alanis Morissette and sang about love and dirty politicians. Laundry Service came about in part because Gloria Estefan, another Epic artist, suggested she make an English-language album. At the time, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez were leading a Latin pop boom for Sony. Shakira studied Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen lyrics, read rhyming dictionaries and Walt Whitman poetry and wrote such songs as "Whenever, Wherever" and "Underneath Your Clothes," both Hot 100 top 10s.

"She seriously studied how entertainment works 'in the rest of the world,' " says Verde. "She was totally faithful to her music and her style, but she studied the language, the media in each place."

Artistically and commercially, that type of determination has marked her career. When her 2005 album "Oral Fixation Vol. 2" turned out to be a sales disappointment, she went right back to the studio and recorded "Hips Don't Lie," featuring Wyclef Jean - it landed at No. 1 on the Hot 100, sold 3.6 million tracks, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and helped drive album sales of 1.7 million. That explosive mix of Latin and urban sounds is a trick the Rihanna duet "Can't Remember to Forget You" - an outlier in context of the album's other tracks - was designed to repeat. Corson calls it "an event record. You get the two biggest stars in the world together and make a sexy, fun video. It was too good to pass."

The video, featuring the two women caressing each other and smoking cigars, was steamy enough that Shakira asked Pique for permission to shoot it.

"He's very territorial, and since he no longer lets me do videos with men, well, I have to do them with women," she says with a laugh. "It's more than implied in our relationship that I can't do videos like I used to. It's out of the question - which I like, by the way. I like that he protects his turf and he values me, in a way that the only person that he would ever let graze my thigh would be Rihanna."

But the heart of Shakira comes in its more melodic pop-rock tracks such as "23" and the second single "Empire," a gorgeous rock ballad that harks back to Shakira's earliest work. There also are tinges of reggae and dance, as found in "Dare," an uptempo club track.

Spanish versions of "Dare" and "Can't Remember to Forget You" also were recorded. Except for 2005's all-Spanish Fijacion Oral Vol. 1, every Shakira album since "Laundry Service" has been bilingual. "I feel very Colombian, very Latin, and at the same time I feel I've been a sponge and a student of different cultures," she says. "I've traveled the world since I was 18, and I think that's allowed me to have a global perception."

Balancing the English and Latin parts of her career clearly is crucial to Shakira. When she signed with Live Nation in 2008 - a deal valued at $70 million to $100 million that gives Live Nation a percentage of all of her revenue, including touring and sponsorship - the agreement was negotiated by Live Nation president and CEO Michael Rapino, who in 2010 brought in Jorge Ferradas to manage that joint venture, including overseeing Shakira's Latin markets worldwide. Ferradas had been on Shakira's management team and worked with her since his days as managing director of Sony Music Sur (which included Argentina, Chile and Uruguay).


Shakira maintains close ties with those who have helped drive her success, from executives at Sony Music Latin to producers (Luis Fernando Ochoa has worked on Pies Descalzos and on Shakira, for example) to members of her band, who have remained unchanged for more than a decade. "She's loyal," says her manager, Jay Brown, president of Roc Nation. "You can't buy loyalty. You gotta know where you came from to do anything. And she knows where she came from. And she makes sure that she caters to her roots."

Brown began working with Shakira at the suggestion of Rapino in 2012, after Shakira's relationship with her longtime boyfriend, Antonio de la Rua, ended. In a 2012 lawsuit seeking to recover damages of at least $100 million, de la Rua claimed he also was Shakira's business partner. The suit was dismissed by a Los Angeles Superior Court in August 2013.

Shakira First Appeared in the March 15 Issue of Billboard -- Click Here to Get a Copy

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"My role wasn't to change but to help," says Brown, who negotiated sponsorship deals with T-Mobile, Crest and Target. "I came in to basically provide her with everything she needed that was essential to her career."

The Target partnership, which kicked off with a Shakira-Target spot that aired during the Grammys in January, gives the retailer an exclusive deluxe edition of the album with three Target-exclusive tracks. No numbers were provided, but typically, top-tier artists featured in custom commercials can receive as much as $7 million in media spend from the retailer.

Brown also negotiated the deal that brought Shakira to The Voice, which The Hollywood Reporter reported at $12 million a season, according to a source. "She was one of those huge international stars I had only seen from a distance," says fellow coach Shelton. But he and Shakira clicked so well that last year, she approached him for a collaboration.

"I told him I wanted to work with Nashville people," she says. "I was a little tired of L.A. I wanted people with another point of view, real people with roots with whom I feel comfortable working in the same room. And I told Blake I wanted to do a song that had the narrative of a country song, that was picturesque, that was a real song. But it also needed to suit me, because after all, I'm Colombian."

Shakira invited writer Hillary Lindsey and producer Mark Bright - who both have worked with Carrie Underwood, among others - to this very studio, and together they crafted "Medicine," a country song that's light enough on fiddle and steel guitar to work on pop radio.

"One thing is for someone like her to say she's going to do something and another is to do it," says Shelton. "And I'll be damned, a month and a half ago she wrote me and said, 'I wrote the song, and I want you to tell me what you think.' And I said: 'Gosh dang, you did exactly what you said you'd do. It sounds like a hit song.' And then she said, 'Well, do you want to sing on it?' I was honored to do it."

Adds Shakira, who had never dabbled in country: "I was so nervous. You have no idea. I was so scared he was going to say, 'No, Shakira. I love you, but no.'"


It's now close to 7 p.m., and an anxious assistant peeks in to remind Shakira that her studio is waiting, her engineer is waiting, her mixes are waiting. Milan also is waiting. On Feb. 24, Milan set foot in Colombia for the first time, picked up his Colombian passport and accompanied his mom to the school inauguration.

This might be what Shakira is most passionate about, now - being able to concretely effect change, entirely on her own terms.

"I was born and raised in Colombia, a country where there's a huge gap between rich and poor and where being born into poverty maybe means being condemned to it," she says. "There are very few opportunities to rebel against that cruel destiny. I felt education is the great opportunity that makes us all equal, that levels the playing field."

Funding for Pies Descalzos comes from different sources, including Shakira's own endorsement deals. To promote the cause, it helps that Shakira's social numbers are impressive: 24.1 million Twitter followers (among the top 15 in the world) and 83.8 million Facebook likes.

The new school, for example, Shakira's sixth, will benefit from a $500,000 donation from Oral-B and Crest 3D White, which made Shakira its global spokesperson in 2013 in its first-ever celebrity global partnership. The school will house more than 1,000 students, bringing the total number of Pies Descalzos students to nearly 7,000; they receive free education and meals while their families receive training and support.

"Many of them have graduated and gone to college," says Shakira. "To me that's the transforming power of education, which I haven't seen with anything else in my life. You have opportunities through music or soccer, but those are isolated cases. I may have a relative talent, but to survive in this industry, I've had to use my intelligence and my education. That's been essential."

I ask Shakira one last thing as she gets up from the couch.

Her best trait? "Perseverance."

Worst defect? "Perseverance," she replies with a chuckle.

Good-luck charm? "Ah, Milan. He's brought me such good luck."

I gather my things and make my way to the door. On the way out, I peek into the studio to say goodbye. Shakira, the perfectionist global star, isn't yet seated on her perch in front of the soundboard. But just outside, a youthful-looking woman in tight gray jeans and a plaid shirt holds a toddler in her arms and laughs out loud.

From a distance, she looks just like any other mom.