From Menudo to Ricky Martin, “prefab” Latin pop stars have traditionally been attacked on two fronts: Not only have these South-of-the-border hit-makers supposedly been “manufactured” for American ears, they’ve also supposedly betrayed something about their own heritage — something (to use the academic parlance) authentically Latin. Predictably enough, Shakira — a 24-year-old Colombian with Lebanese roots — has been dismissed by hordes of Yankee writers as another purveyor of Anglicized Latin tripe, the carefully assembled product of “a battalion of producers and songwriters,” as Rolling Stone put it.
Laundry Service, Shakira’s first English-language album, follows a trio of million-sellers in her native tongue, but almost nothing about it suggests she’s been made over too heavily for the Anglo market. Not only do nonglitzy arrangements abound, she penned all of the lyrics (clunky metaphors and all) in her newly learned English, and her idiosyncratic and arguably noncommercial voice rules the roost.
The voice, in fact, is a beast of its own. At times it’s powerful and evocative, at others it’s downright annoying, full of weird ticks and overblown Alanis-like warbling. Some of Laundry Service, likewise, bears its cross-continental drift a little awkwardly: A couple of the songs, including “Whenever, Wherever” and “Objection,” her very own “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” suggest tinges of the kind of ersatz “Latin” flavor adult-contemporary artists have been drawing on for years.
Overall, though, Laundry Service is novel if not downright original — a smart blend of rock-en-Español punch and hooky, grown-up girl-pop.
Full-bodied and potent as they are, even the ballads pulse and shimmer with aplomb. Considering that this is a set of love songs and only love songs, Shakira could’ve been turned into a libidinous Latin pop android. Instead, she manages to show us both an album and a persona more interesting than just about any American songstress has delivered in recent months. Kudos, muchacha.
E-mail Christian Hoard at firstname.lastname@example.org.