By all accounts, 2023 was shaping up to be a rough year for Shakira. She and her longtime partner, Spanish footballer Gerard Pique, were in the midst of a very public split, and the pop superstar had also been ordered to stand trial for alleged tax fraud in Spain.

But less than two weeks into the new year, Shakira came out swinging on a record-breaking collaboration — with in-demand Argentine DJ-producer Bizarrap — that set the now-46-year-old singer on a path to have one of the best years of her career. One highlight unfolded at MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, where the Colombia native performed and received the lifetime achievement award.

There was nothing subtle about ‘Shakira: Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53,’ which referenced Pique’s new, then-23-year-old girlfriend by name and addresses her ex directly: “You left me with a mother-in-law as my neighbour, with the press at my door and in debt with the estate.”

For any other pop star, releasing an effective diss track, alongside a producer known for working mainly with reggaeton and Latin trap stars, might be seen as a risky move. But for Shakira, whose work has been defined by global, genre-defying music and pointed lyrics, it was savvy business as usual.

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Shakira and her sons Sasha and Milan Pique attend the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., September 12, 2023. 

Shakira rose to fame as a teenager in Colombia, where she recorded her first album, ‘Magia,’ at just 13. She reached commercial success with her third and fourth efforts — ‘Pies Descalzos’ (Bare Feet) and ‘Dnde Estn los Ladrones?’ (Where are the Thieves?) — establishing her reputation as a gifted songwriter and “rockera” whose vocals earned comparisons to Alanis Morissette’s. ‘Pies Descalzos,’ released in 1995, featured songs such as the lovesick ‘Antologia’ (‘Anthology’) and ‘Se Quiere, Se Mata,’.

The album put Shakira on the radar of music executive Emilio Estefan, who had overseen the very successful English-language crossover of his wife, Gloria Estefan, and other Latin music stars, and saw similar crossover potential in the singer.

With Estefan on board as her manager and executive producer, Shakira recorded ‘Dnde Estn los Ladrones?’ The 1998 album echoed the thoughtful songwriting of ‘Pies Descalzos,’ while leaning more heavily into rock en espaol. On ‘Octavo Da’ (Eighth Day), Shakira sings about God taking a day off after creating the world, only to find his creation in turmoil when he returns; ‘Inevitable’ finds the singer confessing to a past love: “I can’t find a way to forget you / because to keep loving you is inevitable.”

‘Dnde’ landed on the Billboard 200 chart and earned the backing of then-Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola, who told the ‘Los Angeles Times’ that Shakira was “absolutely brilliant as an artiste.” The 1999 article also quoted Mottola’s prescient prediction that “Latin music is the reservoir of talent that can be the crossover pop stars and the global pop stars of the future.”

If ‘Pies Descalzos’ and ‘Dnde”’ made Shakira a household name in Latin America (and Latin communities in the United States), it was the bilingual ‘Laundry Service,’ released in 2001, that established Shakira as a force in global pop. The following year, she took the VMAs stage for the first time, performing a belly-dancing rendition of ‘Objection (Tango),’ the album’s fourth single and one of several tracks — including ‘Whenever, Wherever’ — that appeared in both English and Spanish. ‘Ojos As,’ also translated into both languages, offers a nod to Shakira’s Lebanese heritage and features several verses in Arabic. ‘Laundry Service’ peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and led to the singer’s first hits — ‘Underneath Your Clothes,’ ‘Objection’ (Tango) and ‘Whenever, Wherever’ — on the Hot 100.

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Shakira performs during the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., September 12, 2023. 

Like the Grammys — where ‘Laundry Service’ failed to land an album of the year nomination, despite its popularity — the VMAs have struggled in the past to recognise the global popularity of Latin music, particularly when that music is primarily in Spanish. (‘Despacito’ was notoriously snubbed at the 2017 ceremony, despite its status as the song of the summer — and beyond — that year.)

That has started to change in recent years, as the VMAs have hosted sets from reggaeton stars including Maluma, Ozuna (who performed alongside Catalan pop superstar Rosala in 2019) and Bad Bunny, who performed with his ‘Oasis’ collaborator, J Balvin, at the same ceremony.

Shakira has undoubtedly been a driving force on the journey from the ‘90s-era Latin crossover that brought the likes of Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin to fame beyond Latin America (but with largely English-language catalogues) to the new generation of Latin stars who perform exclusively in Spanish. Shakira continued to fuse English and Spanish on subsequent albums, and she was the first VMAs act to perform entirely in Spanish, with ‘La Tortura’ — a reggaeton-inflected duet featuring Alejandro Sanz — from her 2005 album ‘Fijacin Oral, Vol. 1.’ (A companion album, “Oral Fixation, Vol. 2,” featured English-language tracks).

Though not all of her fans appreciated her genre-hopping, Shakira’s career has benefitted from her early embrace of reggaeton, the once-underground genre that now dominates the global pop landscape. Before teaming up with Bizarrap, Shakira logged collabs with other reggaetoneros, including Calle 13 rapper Residente, Ozuna and Rauw Alejandro. ‘Chantaje,”’ her 2016 duet with Maluma, is one of her most popular songs on YouTube — second only to ‘Waka Waka’ (“This Time For Africa”), which served as the official World Cup song in 2010 (‘Hips Don’t Lie,’ the Wyclef Jean duet that landed Shakira’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit is her third most-viewed video on the platform). When she and J. Lo co-headlined the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show, Bad Bunny and J Balvin joined the pop stars for a portion of their set.

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