Shakira: The 'She Wolf' Billboard Cover Story

Shakira: The 'She Wolf' Billboard Cover Story
Jaume de la Iguana


In Shakira's hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, there's a 15-foot metal statue of her, wearing bell-bottoms and strumming a guitar. It was donated by a German sculptor in 2006, in the midst of the singer's wildly successful Oral Fixation world tour, which featured her jaw-dropping belly-dancing and a finale of "Hips Don't Lie" with Wyclef Jean.

Shakira occasionally strummed a glittery guitar during the show, but by the time the statue was put up, she was far from the acoustic pop-rocker she'd been on her 1996 breakthrough album, "Pies Descalzos." And if the statue already was playing catch-up with her image in 2006, it barely captures her now.

A preview of Shakira's third English album, "She Wolf," due Oct. 13 on Epic, reveals what may be some of her most club-oriented music to date: electronic pop with strong basslines and prominent world music textures, combined with a dose of in-your-face sex appeal.

"I felt very curious and intrigued about the electro-pop world and everything it has to offer," Shakira tells Billboard by phone from her home in the Bahamas. "I wanted to make sure that this album was very bassy and that the kicks hit really hard, and I wanted to concentrate on the beat. But my music, to a certain extent, is very complex -- because I always try to experiment with sounds from other parts of the world." Shakira produced and wrote "She Wolf," teaming with Pharrell Williams on production; other collaborators include Jean; John Hill, who's worked with Santigold; the Bravery's Sam Endicott; and Academy Award winner Jorge Drexler. Keyboardist Albert Menendez also co-wrote a song.

Above: Watch Pharrell talk about working with Shakira.

It's one thing to cross over into the non-Latin market, as Shakira did nearly a decade ago. But it's quite another to maintain that crossover, particularly to the degree that Shakira has. She'll follow up her simultaneous worldwide release with a tour promoted by Live Nation, with whom she has a multirights deal (although Epic is releasing the album) that's intended to build her business as a whole.

"For an artist in this day and age, and for an artist who is still early in their career, the challenge is: How do you conquer the world in a new way?" manager Ceci Kurzman asks. "How do you make sure that, now that the barriers have been dropped because of electronic media, how do you make sure that more people than ever can hear your music? There was a time you measured your success by the number of albums sold. And now you have such a broader scope."


Shakira's march to mainstream pop divadom began with "Laundry Service," her 2001 English-language album, which has sold more than 3.7 million U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "La Tortura," the first single from her 2005 album "Fijación Oral, Vol. 1," became the first Spanish-language video to air on MTV without an English-language version.

Shakira cemented her crossover with "Hips Don't Lie," a belated addition to her English-language "Oral Fixation, Vol. 2" album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in at least 10 other countries tracked by Nielsen Music Control. All in all, Shakira has sold 50 million albums worldwide, according to her label.

"What tends to happen with Latin stars is that they tend to have one big English-language record or two and then they revert back to making Spanish records," says Rob Stringer, chairman of Columbia/Epic Label Group. "She does a very good job of managing to synergize those two careers. Shakira is competing against iconic female artists and completely standing on her own, but she also has a career in Spanish as well, so she's completely unique in that respect."

What's always set Shakira apart from her peers, whether in the Latin or the mainstream world, have been clever lyrics peppered with ingenious fusions -- from tango to bossa nova to Andean flutes to reggaetón. As she did on the remarkable "Ojos Así," a Middle Eastern romp with electric guitars from her 1998 album "Dónde Estan Los Ladrones?," Shakira looks east once again on "She Wolf."

In addition to the disco-influenced title track, there's "Good Stuff," a synthed-out snake-charmer punctuated by ululating and staccato beats; "Long Time," a percussive midtempo groove with a Roma-like clarinet bridge; and "Why Wait," a dancefloor scorcher by way of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." (Shakira worked on the arrangement with Hossam Ramzy, who had worked on "Kashmir" with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.) "It's an electronic album generally speaking, but it does have different organic instruments that, combined with the synthesizers, create a different sort of ambience," says the two-time Grammy and seven-time Latin Grammy Award winner. "You've got to put together a nice meal and make sure the spices don't take over the main ingredient. And at the end of the day, it gives a nice flavor in your mouth."


Audiences worldwide will get a much bigger taste of Shakira as Epic prepares to release "She Wolf." Already, the title track is No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart in its Spanish-language version, "Loba." The song's combined downloads and airplay in both languages have vaulted it to No. 12 on the Hot 100 this week. And "She Wolf" is No. 6 on Billboard's European Airplay chart.

Even with vampires and werewolves being all the rage these days, Shakira says she hadn't heard of "Twilight" until she showed "She Wolf" to Epic president Amanda Ghost -- who in turn made her watch "Twilight." "I loved it but I also found that it was, coincidentally, very appropriate," the "Harry Potter" fan says. "I think people are craving fantasy."

Shakira delivers that and then some in the "She Wolf" video, which also has a version in Spanish. In both videos, she writhes around in a cage, wearing a flesh-colored leotard and stilettos. Belly-dancing aside, this is a more unabashedly sexed-up presentation. (It also was YouTube users' third-most-favorite music video in August.) On the single and elsewhere on the album, there's a bluntness to her urges only hinted at in her previous work.

Shakira says "She Wolf" represents her being "a little more in touch with my desires and a little more empowered or encouraged to satisfy those desires and set them free. It's something that just comes with time. I probably would not have written a song like this when I was 20, but I do it now because it's the way I feel today...I find that this time around, I'm writing with a little less prudeness."


Shakira's tour is a ways off, but her label and promoter are discussing how to offer the album to ticket buyers. Shakira's Oral Fixation 2006-07 world tour grossed more than $42 million across 46 dates in North America and Latin America, as reported to Billboard Boxscore. In total, the tour grossed more than $100 million worldwide, according to Kurzman. And nearly a decade after the "Latin explosion" of the early 2000s, Shakira's global audience -- and her brand -- are still ripe for growth.

It's the changing reality of the music business that led Shakira to sign a multirights deal with Live Nation, Kurzman says. But given that all of Shakira's albums to date -- as well as "She Wolf" and a Spanish-language album likely to be released during her next tour -- are with Sony, "we'll be working with them for as long as I can imagine," Kurzman says. With Live Nation promoting Shakira's tours and handling her merchandise, and with two studio albums left in her current Epic contract, "we have two strong, strategic partners for the years to come...even though one comes from the record side and one comes primarily from the touring side. They are able to lend their resources from both sides, and she's been the beneficiary of that."

As far as what the Live Nation deal will offer two album cycles down the road, it's about growing all of the artist's businesses "holistically, instead of just putting them in the category of your record, your tour, your merch, your brands," Kurzman says. On the recording side, that could eventually mean artists embrace a flexible alternative to the biennial format of a 10-song album and take advantage of new formats and distribution outlets to put music into the marketplace, she says.

On the touring side, "it's less about the number of dates and more about how strategic we are. She's already an artist who does upwards of 140 shows a tour and hits five continents. It's not that there's a big drop-off or a space to fill," Kurzman says. In terms of broadening her reach, she cites eastern Europe, southeast Asia and the Middle East as territories with touring growth potential.


A renowned perfectionist, Shakira spent a month trying out different mixes of the first single until she was happy with it. When she spoke to Billboard, she was still tweaking mixes on the album at the legendary Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. The studio, where Bob Marley, U2 and the Cure have recorded, drew Shakira to the Bahamas to record and eventually to live.

It was that obsession with production details that made her and Williams a good match. "We work in different ways -- he is very fast and very proactive," Shakira says. "When it comes to production, I think things through a little more and travel different roads before I make a decision or commit to something. I have commitment issues."

One thing she has no trouble committing to is activism on behalf of children living in poverty. Though she's not a protest singer, Shakira hasn't refrained from social commentary, including on her last album a song called "Timor."

Will her international efforts to rally support and donations for early childhood development programs be reflected musically on "She Wolf"? "My biggest motivation was to make an album that people could just have fun with and forget about their troubles," she says. "I think I've found other outlets that have been very proactive. And I guess when that happens, the music just becomes music, and now I can use it for the purpose it's created for -- to amuse and entertain people and also express other feelings, but things that are more personal. I'm letting music guide me."