There's only one place where a duet between Shakira and Blake Shelton makes sense, and that's inside an executive suite at NBC, the network that brings the two stars together every week as celebrity coaches on "The Voice."
You certainly don't hear anything beyond corporate synergy at work in "Medicine," a deeply unconvincing collaboration that somehow made the cut for Shakira's new, self-titled album. Trading lines over a chipper pop-country arrangement embroidered with ready-made banjo licks, the singers feebly declare that each is the cure for what ails the other.
"If I want the pain to go away, in a second make it fade," they insist, "You're the only thing that will." Well, maybe on TV.
As chemistry-free as "Medicine" sounds, it's just one of many songs that poorly present Shakira's talent on this disappointing album, the follow-up to the singer's excellent 2010 disc "Sale el Sol" and her first record since she became a mother last year.
With tinkling piano giving way to a booming parade beat, the swollen "Empire" sounds like Shakira doing a bad impression of Alicia Keys. "Dare (La La La)" sets lyrics about getting drunk on some guy's eyes to a standard-issue club track from Dr. Luke.
And "Can't Remember to Forget You" pairs Shakira with Rihanna for a duet that could've become something more organic than "Medicine" but ends up feeling just as focus-grouped.
Predictable and flavorless, these songs seem to realize a fear that unfairly gathered around Shakira in 2009 when her album "She Wolf" led some critics to suspect that the Colombian-born star was attempting to Americanize her sound (or had been coerced into doing so by forces in the music industry).
Even with unapologetically hit-seeking production by Timbaland and the Neptunes, though, that album preserved much of Shakira's unique appeal — her yelpy vocals, for instance, and a flair for peppering high-flown lyrics with little bursts of the everyday.
"Shakira," by contrast, actually does feel like an effort to smooth out her quirks, to fit her into stylistic slots otherwise occupied by, say, Taylor Swift ("Broken Record"), Pink ("Spotlight") or Kelly Clarkson ("The One Thing").
But more than a decade after her song "Whenever, Wherever" established her in the United States, Shakira's own brand has proved no less durable than those other pop stars. (Three words: "Hips Don't Lie.") So it's unclear why she'd change course now.
One reason might be the newfound fulfillment in her personal life — an inspiration-killer, perhaps, for an artist who's written vividly about romantic frustration in songs such as "La Tortura" and "Men in This Town," which laments the lack of suitable prospects in Los Angeles.
Here she's reduced in "23" to describing the beginning of her relationship with the Spanish soccer player Gerard Piqué this way: "I knew we had something from the moment I met you / I knew we had something, no one thought it could be true." (The tune ends with the satisfied gurgle of their infant son.)
She's scarcely better in "The One Thing," where the singer says her lover "turned the darkness into sunlight" — a pretty weak metaphor from a women who once memorably complained of feeling "just a little abused, like a coffee machine in an office."
Yet the idea that contentment equals creative stasis suggests that Shakira is incapable of drawing on her imagination, which obviously isn't the case. Indeed, the two finest songs on "Shakira" take up the kind of emotional turmoil she appears to have excised from her happy existence.
In "You Don't Care About Me," she sketches a scene of poisoned domesticity with smart, brutal details over a sinister electro-folk groove. "I fold your T-shirts and I strip your bed," she sings, "I loved you perfect, but there's no appreciation."
She's more pointed still in the sharp-angled reggae tune "Cut Me Deep," asking, "Why do you fill up my wounds with your dirt?"
There are glimmers of her old peculiarity elsewhere, as when she sings in "Broken Record" that "I can get lost climbing on your legs that never end." And though the album's lead single feels like a marketing initiative come to life, "Can't Remember to Forget You" has some beautiful guitar sounds, as tart and fizzy as ginger ale.
But you know a Shakira record isn't doing what it should be when you find yourself paying attention to the guitar player.
(RCA/Sony Latin Iberia)
One and a half stars