Ciara’s 2004 debut Goodies arrived at the tail-end of the last R&B boom. Its best moments used the churn and snap of “crunk’n’b” as a vehicle to re-imagine and repackage the frothy, light-hearted dancefloor charm of early Janet Jackson or Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, only replacing girlish energy with insouciance and reserve. She wanted you to drip the sweat she never perspires. And while this mix of qualities made Ciara seem more distinctive and unique than a more solidly traditional R&B diva might, it’s always seemed like Ciara gets R&B at its core, that she’s invested in exploring all the ways the music can move you. Perhaps consequently, the mixed qualitative and commercial fortunes of her career since have mirrored the fortunes of the genre itself. It’s easy to think that if Ciara could put out an album that consistently captured the best of her talents, that record alone might be enough to help R&B reassume the throne of commercial dominance.
I suspect Ciara is not that album, but it roughly matches the quality of 2010’s Basic Instinct, probably her most consistent album up to that point. Which should be good enough to keep the dream alive a little longer. Ciara also touches on just about every facet of her style to date, and while she’s a more versatile, accomplished singer than when she started, her appeal remains essentially unchanged. At her best, Ciara comes on less as a full-blooded personality or even an object of desire and more as a glamorous big sister, the one you want to be when you grow up, who knows all the right moves on the dancefloor and in life. Complexity and personal drama ain’t in it: Ciara holds out the dazzling promise of somehow transcending all of that.
So it’s not surprising that Ciara feels slightly (though only slightly) weaker when she swims against the current of her own charm and tries for “raw.” “I’ve just been through a break up” she announces flatly on the blaring, Nicki Minaj-assisted opener “I’m Out”, and while she’s probably aiming for some mixture of bold personal statement and casual don’t-give-a-fuck swag, all you can hear is the deliberateness. Rihanna, a more limited singer than Ciara, can sound convincingly dead on tunes like “Pour It Up”, but Ciara’s stabs at a similar vibe can have a dress-ups quality, like she’s practicing her enervated monotone recitals in front of the mirror, singing into her lipstick. Ciara has done “hard” plenty of times, but on past tunes like “Oh” or “Ride” she effectively floated above the fray, untouched by the violence even as she endorsed it. “I’m Out” and Ciara’s Nicki-aping rap on (the otherwise excellent) “Super Turnt Up” are enough to confirm aggression is not her strong suit.
Conversely, the delectable, “My Boo”-referencing slow jam single “Body Party” finds the singer in top form, its billowing Mike Will Made It synth chords and crashing snares the perfect setting for Ciara’s light as a feather performance. The key line is “I’m having so much fun with you”, delivered with startled exuberance: even sex, in Ciara’s world, resembles the more innocent sensual pleasure of dancing. Likewise the double entendre-filled cunnilingus ode “Read My Lips”, perky electro-pop delivered with such frothy, wide-eyed innocence that it’s hard even to notice the subject matter. This same sense of uncomplicated exhilaration raises the straightforward, 2013 carbon dated club-pop of “Livin’ It Up” and “Overdose” from throwaway to highlight status, their obviousness transformed into a virtue through the singer’s palpable enjoyment.
The marvelous closing remix of “Body Party” (with features from Future and B.o.B.) underscores this (and the “My Boo” resemblance) by adding a popping bass beat, further submerging Ciara’s come-ons within easy dancefloor camaraderie. It’s a bewitching vision of life without any room for doubts or sadness– except, perhaps, for the bittersweet realization that contemporary pop doesn’t sound just like this nearly enough.