Ciara can wear the hell out of some Louboutin pumps and YSL booties. She could possibly rock a Glad trash bag.
Her pop-star façade, on the other hand, is ill-fitting. R&B singers tend to come wrapped in a nice, predefined persona— for better or worse—but Ciara’s was always vague and undefined.
She wasn’t a Bohemian earth girl like Badu, a dashing pop diva like Beyoncé or a sultry seductress like Janet. Instead, she introduced herself as an innocent Aaliyah-ish chick who wouldn’t dare give up her goodies. She’s one of the ones who can dance really, really well.
Then came the 2006 sophomore album, Ciara: The Evolution, packed with synthetic interludes and solid dance hits that could’ve stood on their own without the disingenuous evolution premise. The lead single, “Promise,” worked in part because CiCi appealed to our visual senses. She slimmed down noticeably, wore tighter designer clothes and danced so suggestively that you half expected her to start pinning condoms to her clothes and call it a new trend. She seemed to be breaking out of the child-star mold in hopes of avoiding that weird purgatory fantasy and the real world.
Her third effort, Fantasy Ride, is a step in the “Ms. Harris, if you’re nasty” direction, a meandering rollercoaster that continues the trend of R&B singers skewing pop. On it, the artist teeters between sweet big sister mode and temptress status. (See the racy music video for the excellent “Love Sex Magic” featuring Justin Timberlake.)
As if to demonstrate her indecisiveness on record, “High Price” employs two types of flows—distorted opera-esque vocals and an over-enunciated street voice. Still, the Tricky Stewart-produced, Ludacris-featured cut is daring and high-energy in the vein of her previous Luda collabo, “Oh.” The dazzling Dream-laced “Lover’s Thing” (which is more Dream’s song; it sounds like “Purple Kisses”) and “Like a Surgeon” (a measured slow jam) is where Ciara flips to sultry mode: “I’ll make your body jump” and such. The Young Jeezy-featured, radio-friendly single “Never Ever” is one of her pleasantly cutesy tracks seemingly aimed at young girls (it is “if that boy don’t love you by now,” after all). And elsewhere, the singer plays sassy (“if you don’t like it, you can kiss my swag”). But in actuality, Ciara is willing to do what it takes to entertain both her man and us. She establishes this on the very first track: “To have your undivided attention is my mission.” Titled “Ciara to the Stage,” the song toys with the notion of Ciara as dually someone’s girl and someone’s artist.
It is possible to be diverse without appearing pulled in different directions—Beyoncé does the shy-girl/fly-girl routine well. And it’s possible to be about nothing and still be interesting—Rihanna has managed to use her robotic qualities to her advantage, transforming vapidity into something malleable.
Ciara, on the other hand, simply doesn’t play any one singing role well. She dances. In fact, she can dance her butt off, and that is her strength. Her voice is strained at best even on the striking ballad “I Don’t Remember.” So best to look past the vocals and try to appreciate the lyrics because there are some good ones in this song.
That she’s genuinely grown into this oversexed woman is tough to believe; it may just be a phase. When the schtick works, we get oddly enticing songs like “Promise” and “High Price.” When it doesn’t, it’s like watching Rudy Huxtable play a prostitute.
Since there is no clear-cut Ciara sound, Fantasy Ride is a musical tug-of-war between cute and sexy. Not a girl, not yet a woman, Ciara is at her best playing to her dance strengths. Right now, though, she’s the one late for her date, still deciding what to wear.
Clover Hope is a writer based in New York City.