Shakira Finds Liberation, One Song at a Time

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A report by Jon Pareles for the New York Times.

Not long ago, the Colombian songwriter and pop star Shakira didn’t know if she would ever make another album. “I was full of doubts, and I thought I was never going to make good music again,” she said in an interview at a Midtown Manhattan hotel suite on a busy day of promotion for yes, a new album, “El Dorado,” released on Friday.

It’s an album sung mostly in Spanish, Shakira’s original language — though she is now fluent in English — and it’s full of love songs carried by tropical rhythms. The album is named after a mythical golden city sought in the Americas by Europeans. “Finding inspiration itself and realizing it had always been there all along — that was my El Dorado,” she said. “That was a perfect state of mind.”

Her inspiration returned, she said, when she decided she didn’t have to make an album — just one song at a time: “It was like a liberation.”

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll became a superstar across Latin America in the 1990s and reached even more of the world with her 2001 album, “Laundry Service,” which had songs in English and has sold more than three million copies in the United States alone. Her globally sourced grooves, girlish smile and sinuous hips made her a music-video sensation. She went on to sell tens of millions of albums; collaborate with Beyoncé, Rihanna and Wyclef Jean (in the international hit “Hips Don’t Lie”); become a coach on “The Voice”; and record the World Cup anthem “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” which led to her meeting the Spanish soccer player Gerard Piqué, who is the father of her children.

But lately she has been wrapped up in raising the couple’s two children, now 2 and 4 years old. Making her 2014 album, “Shakira,” which delved into rock and electronic dance music in a clear attempt to court radio play, had taken a difficult two years, yet it had less than blockbuster sales. “When am I going to retire?” Shakira recalled asking Mr. Piqué. “And he said: ‘When you don’t have anything to say. But that moment hasn’t come yet.’”

She added: “The creator inside of me was in desperate need of attention. But also my 2-year-old was in the same need. The person, the mother, the creator — all of those little Shakiras were fighting inside of me, so it was very tumultuous.”

The turning point came last year as Shakira revisited her Colombian roots. The songwriter Carlos Vives, who has had hits across the Spanish-speaking world with songs based in Colombian traditions like the accordion-driven vallenato, sent her demos for his next album. Shakira heard duet possibilities in a song, and the musician in her got to work.

“I felt that it had potential, but I felt that I really wanted to get my hands in the dough,” she said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I like it, but it’s missing something.’” She came up with the song’s poppy refrain, “Llévame en tu bicicleta” (“Take me on your bicycle”), and the song became “La Bicicleta.” With a video clip that showed Shakira and Mr. Vives bicycling and dancing through their hometowns on the Caribbean coast, returning to childhood landmarks, the song became a hit across Latin America.

They were “presenting Colombia as I saw it, through my childhood, and not as many people imagine it,” Shakira said. “Not the Pablo Escobar Colombia, which is the cliché that lots of people who are not familiar with the rest of our reality only know about. I wanted to show the other face, the real face, the face that Colombians experience.”

Having finished one song, she realized she could work on another. As music migrates to streaming platforms, it grows easier to “share my music on a song-by-song basis,” she said. “As soon as a song was ready, I had a direct relationship with my fans, and I just put it out there. And that completely changed my game. Instead of thinking of the huge Mount Everest that I have to climb, just think about every step of the way.”

The album features a song that is already a megahit: “Chantaje” (“Blackmail”), a teasing duet with the Colombian singer Maluma, a heartthrob of Latin pop. “I’m a masochist,” Maluma sings. “With my body, I’m an egotist,” Shakira responds. Since its release last year, “Chantaje” has tallied more than 1.2 billion views on YouTube and 326 million plays on Spotify.

“‘Chantaje’ is so smooth and sexy and modern and different and simple, minimalistic,” Shakira said. “I wanted to give it a different spin, where the girl is the mean one, because I’m tired of hearing songs where women complain about how mistreated they feel. This time, I wanted to take control. I wanted to represent the mean one in the relationship — the careless one, the free-spirited one.”

The album has another collaboration with Maluma: “Trap,” a whispery ballad that fuses Spanish-language pop with the brittle R&B rhythms of trap. Other canny pairings on the album include “Déjà vu,” a bachata shared with the Bronx-born Dominican-American smoothie Prince Royce; “Me Enamoré,” a pert, skeletal falling-in-love song written by Shakira and the Spanish producer Rayito; “Perro Fiel,” a pop-reggaeton duet with the reggaeton singer Nicky Jam; and “What We Said,” a song in English with a reggaeton beat, a hint of African guitar and guest vocals from Nasri Atweh of Magic. Throughout the album, there’s a playfulness that was missing from the 2014 “Shakira.”

“My whole life, I had pressed pause on so many things in my personal life to follow my dreams, my professional dreams, to become a successful artist,” Shakira said. “And suddenly, things changed, and I saw myself as a mother, with a family I had dreamed about since I was a child. And then, when I realized the creator inside of me was also asking to be considered, my music became my escape. The studio became the place to let some steam off, away from everyday life as a mother — that became my hobby. And then it became a pleasure like all hobbies are. So now music is my hobby. Oh, I never thought I would say that!”

She laughed. “It’s crazy!”

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