It’s no secret that the music press tends to draw comparisons between female artists regardless of how much (or how little, as is more often the case) they actually have in common. We’ve seen it with the endless female DJ thinkpieces and the lazy cliché that any emerging female rapper is coming for Azealia’s throne – as she supposedly did for Nicki’s, and Nicki for Kim’s. Here’s a novel idea: how about we assess female musicians on their individual merit?
So it was unsurprising when Ciara’s eponymous fifth album (released on the fifth of July) was stacked up against Kelly Rowland’s “Talk a Good Game”. But aside from being made by black female r&b royalty and released within three weeks of each other, the two albums bear few similarities. Sure, each take brief stabs at EDM-inflected pop and feature a couple of Mike WiLL production stamps, but that’s nothing to write home about considering the ubiquity of both the Atlantan producer and club-oriented pop hybrids in 2013’s r&b landscape. Without wanting to feed into this low-key sexist way of critiquing women in r&b, I’d argue that “Ciara” has more in common with an album by a different Destiny’s Child member – Beyoncé’s “4”.
“Ciara” and “4” have been the singers’ most personal albums of their career. But where Beyoncé’s vision manifested itself in the general sound and subject matter of “4”, Ciara’s off-record affairs reveal the most about her hand in the album’s creative direction. First, there was the rewrite: a handful of promo singles were cut from the final tracklist. Perhaps the most painful to accept was the loss of the Ginuwine-sampling “Sorry“, but what would a Ciara LP be without a few glaring omissions? Second, there was the album’s rebrand: the original “One Woman Army” title dropped for the more succinct “Ciara”. “Ciara” avoids the me-against-the-world cynicism of “One Woman Army”, but if this album is where she bares all (as the title “Ciara” implies she will), then there’s a lot depending on it being received well.
Stream: Ciara – Body Party (Epic)
For those of you who don’t know, Ciara is Future’s IRL astronaut chick. The Atlanta-via-Pluto Freebandz rapper features on two of the album’s eleven tracks, both of which are produced by Mike WiLL Made It. While lead single “Body Party” has become an outstanding addition to Mike WiLL’s faultless r&b run, “Where You Go” will be confined to a mere footnote on his list of musical achievements. “Where You Go” serves a different purpose to “Body Party”; it’s the closest thing to a ballad on the album, but its lullaby rhythm is clumsy and were it not for Future’s raspy autotuned gargle (dude’s voice sounds good over anything), it would be completely unmemorable. One thing it does make clear is that Mike is out for Billboard blood; with the crossover success of “We Can’t Stop” and rumours of production credits on the upcoming Drake and Mariah Carey albums, he’s fast on his way to becoming a household name.
Though Future’s presence is more palpable on “Where You Go” (he merely coos in the background of “Body Party”), “Body Party” is their superior teamup. The spark which evades “Where You Go” is abundant on “Body Party”; the opulent syth work exudes a warmth and the steady finger snaps give it an old school charm. The official remix is tacked on at the end of the album like a careless afterthought, the main differences being a tempo adjustment, additional vocals from Future and a guest verse from B.o.B. Taking “Body Party” back up to “My Boo“‘s speed, the Ghost Town DJ’s Miami bass track which it samples (dem chords), is an inspired, if obvious, move. It injects a lively energy into the remix that distinguishes it from the original’s slow-burning sensuality. B.o.B surprisingly doesn’t do the track a huge disservice, but his presence feels completely unnecessary. There’s something plain dumb about Future crooning ‘girl it’s just me and you’ only for B.o.B to turn up and third wheel.
The chemistry between Ciara and Future pales in comparison to that between Ciara and Nicki Minaj, who also features twice – on album opener (and second single) “I’m Out“, and later on “Livin’ It Up“. With its ‘don’t know when my next meal’s coming/all I know is I’ll be running’ lyrics, “Livin’ It Up” positions the duo as a modern-day Thelma & Louise. Nicki emboldens Ciara, acting as the rambunctious Louise to Ciara’s girlish Thelma, and coaxes out a playfulness in her that would have been otherwise left untapped. “I’m Out” is a club-honed doozy and a good riddance breakup song for the Instagram generation: ‘I put some pics up lookin’ sexy/now this n*gg* wanna text me/how much you wanna bet me/he gone regret the day he left me’. It’s alike in sound and theme to “I’m Legit“, the pair’s previous collaboration for Nicki’s “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded – The Re-Up”. Building on its foundations, the lyrics of “I’m Out” promote a similar do-you positivity atop vigorous hand-clap percussion and harsh synth grit. Nicki steals the show on both tracks thanks to lines like ‘you couldn’t get a fan if you was hanging from the ceiling’ and ‘bitches can’t see her, no retina’, which should come as no surprise given the strength of her recent features.
Stream: Ciara feat. Nicki Minaj- I’m Out (Epic)
Like Nicki’s “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded”, “Ciara” successfully dips its toes into half a dozen different genres. When she tries her hand at rapping on “Super Turnt Up“, she credits the track to ‘Ciara feat. Ciara’, something she perhaps learned from Nicki and her extensive use of alter egos. Though the lyrics speak of romantic devotion, Ciara’s delivery adopts an icy affectation that works in harmony with the frosty beat. Prior to the album’s release, Ciara spoke to Chelsea Handler about the song: “My fans get to have a new experience of me, and it’s about knowing me more and truthfully, just me with a different twist. Like I don’t wanna say I’m being somebody else, I just sound a little different, and so it’s featuring me.” This suggests that Ciara’s more sure of her identity as a performer than ever before; with this album she seems to have taken on a role as visionary instead of just being a syrupy-voiced muse for a line of r&b producers.
“Ciara” is as far removed from Jazze Pha’s street anthems for “Goodies” as it is from the soaring melodic pop textures crafted by Terius and Tricky Stewart for “Basic Instinct”. Though nothing quite reaches the majestic climes of “Promise” or “Speechless“, or the grown-and-sexy depths of “Oh” or “Ride“, Ciara fine-tunes her pop sensibilities in order to conquer new territory. “Overdose” sees her seamlessly transition into uncompromising stadium-sized pop. It sounds like Ciara if she were produced by UK hitmakers Xenomania, but it’s in fact the handiwork of Josh Abraham and Oligee. It’s the most accessible and straightforward pop Ciara has ever made, and infectiously catchy to boot.
“Ciara”‘s other full-throttle pop effort comes in the form of “Read My Lips“. Penned and produced by Rodney Jerkins, whose reputation precedes him, “Read My Lips” is Ciara’s “Countdown” – from the allusions to domestic bliss (‘you got a home-cooked meal right here’) to the hook’s down-to-ride-till-the-very-end motif. It’s a 4 minute long euphemism for cunnilingus that just about toes the line of good taste, but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer nerve: ‘you gotta savour it/savour it/I know it’s your favourite dish/you better put your feet up/you ain’t leaving until you eat it all up’. The fruits of Ciara’s past collaborations with Jerkins, the 50 Cent assisted “Can’t Leave ’em Alone” and “Got Me Good“, never amounted to much. The former charted disappointingly while the latter was left to gather dust on the “Ciara” cutting-room floor. However, neither were as well-equipped to dominate radio as “Read My Lips”, nor as well-timed in the wake of “We Can’t Stop”‘s summer jam success. The sexual innuendo doesn’t end with “Read My Lips”; the lyrics of the sultry “DUI” utilise a concept that’s become as much of an r&b cornerstone as the So So Def remix – cars as metaphorical devices for sex.
Stream: Ciara – Sophomore (Epic)
Stream: Ciara – Keep On Lookin’ (Epic)
It’s easy to paint Ciara as a wallflower, but one thing she’s never been coy about (at least on record) is her sexual prowess. “Sophomore” plays out in the vein of “Like A Surgeon” and “I Run It“: Ciara boasts, over a slick Soundz beat that’s as ATL-indebted as anything from her boo’s back catalogue, about how ‘they wanna take me next semester/to them I’m a professor’. Elsewhere, production duo Planet VI craft a similarly trap-influenced beat for “Keep On Lookin’“, in which Ciara bestows the same I’m-outta-your-league, dream-on-fuckboy mantra that she did nine years ago on “Goodies“. The Houston-screwed delivery of ‘used to tell me I’m going down/I’m all that they want now’ lands a little too close for comfort. When considered in the context of the relentless panning Ciara receives from critics, it’s a reminder of how much she has riding on this album.
Beyoncé once said that “4” was about being in love and what happens after you’ve found your soulmate. Now that Ciara’s in a serious relationship with Future, “Ciara” reflects that union – every other song is an ode to her not-so-mysterious suitor. But Ciara’s album establishes more than just her relationship with her boyfriend – it establishes her relationship with her audience. When she interpolates a line from “Promise” into “Super Turnt Up”, singing ‘I’ll give this love to you, so baby come get it/get it’, she’s speaking to her listeners, presenting us with a ‘can I count on you now or not?’ ultimatum.
In Ciara’s cover story for The FADER’s Summer Music issue, Lizzy Goodman wrote: “…one thing Rihanna does not struggle with is transparency. She’s been rewarded for that openness; Rihanna has nearly 30 million Twitter followers to Ciara’s four.” Ciara’s critics have long begged for her to let her guard down, insisting that her polished perfectionism and reserved politeness are dull at best, irritating at worst. By pouring herself into “Ciara”, I’m optimistic that her naysayers’ resolves will soften, and when they do they’ll discover a record that’s as adventurous as it is reliable. Any album secure enough in its greatness to confine productions from The Underdogs to bonus track status has gotta be worth its salt, right? My favourite Ciara will always be Ciara on her deep “Goodies” album cuts flex, but there’s a lot to like about a Ciara who incorporates dancehall patois into her pop songs, who namechecks her former mentor Missy Elliott (and Ziploc storage bags) in her rap verse, and who somewhat recklessly throws away the blueprints for her album only to come through with something as strong as “Ciara”. When Ciara declared a ceasefire for her “One Woman Army”, she left herself vulnerable to attack. “Ciara” proves, throughout its 43 minute navigation of contemporary pop styles, that the best offence is a good defence.