When Ciara first started making the pop radio rounds, she was 18 and, though of a refreshingly mature temperament, far from her max potential. Following the initial wave of fandom that came with 2004’s Goodies and singles like “Oh” and “1, 2 Step”, she’s been inching her way toward being one of the true R&B visionaries. Ci’s always had one of the most capable voices in contemporary R&B, far-reaching charisma, and a Houston-esque ability to take a song she didn’t write (at least not by herself) and find a way to imbue her own interpretive instincts in the mix. Now, with Ciara, her most complete and shortest album yet, the Austin native is only working with the essential elements of her sound – no extraneous Lil Jon guest verses or series of vocal interludes a la 2007’s The Evolution.
Everything to like about Ciara Harris is here in large quantities, and it’s all filtered through that sweet disposition. Ci’s main squeeze these days is a fine young man out of Atlanta named Nayvadius Cash, otherwise known as Auto-Tune admiral Future. The two don’t necessarily work out great together on record (more on that later), but blessedly, their relationship has led Ci to make an album about monogamy and the residual pleasures of staying faithful. There’s the oral-sex song “Read My Lips”, in which Ci intones, “you’re the only one I wanna give it to.” There’s “Keep on Lookin’”, the one about the less suitable guys gawking at her in the club. We learn about the relationship from a whole bunch of angles, and it’s more thoughtful than “I’m yours” at each turn.
Even if she no longer has the commercial appeal she did circa Goodies, there’s no denying that Ciara is getting better at (co-) writing and performing structurally advanced songs. Zooming opener “I’m Out”, filled out with one of Nicki Minaj’s most Nicki Minaj guest appearances ever, falls somewhere between Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” and “Countdown”, but with more dimension than either. “Body Party”, the album’s one hit so far, is an intimate come-hither, complete with soothing vocal flutters and backing moans from Future. And while closer “Overdose” is musically unadventurous – all rupturing synths and pounding EDM drums – its hooks are packed tightly together, producing an especially memorable end to an album that doesn’t have many forgettable moments to begin with.
No pop record can be great without some smart nuancing, and there’s plenty of it to go around here. Take, for example, “DUI”, with Ciara’s self-provided backing vocals and its peals of guitar, rendering the track a particularly rewarding listen through headphones. The other end of the spectrum can be heard on “Where You Go”, the other Ciara cut featuring Future. Mike Will’s production is a definite plus all told, but the acoustic guitar sounds much closer to that of Weezy’s “How to Love”, and Future’s weak, digitalized warbles are an unfit match for the strumming. Other than that choice, Ciara is a crisp, clean album that doesn’t waste much motion. It’d be wise to indulge in it from time to time, though it’s rarely indulgent itself.
Essential Tracks: “I’m Out”, “Body Party”, and “Overdose”