The backstory of Ciara’s fifth, self-titled album is a twisted tale, but here’s what you need to know: Ciara was signed by LA Reid to LaFace directly out of high school in 2004. Her first two albums, Goodies (2004) and Ciara, The Evolution (2006), were much more successful than her next two, Fantasy Ride (2009) andBasic Instinct (2010), which is to say that sales dropped from the low millions into the low hundreds of thousands. Her output was always respectable and she built a large and loyal fanbase over the years, but in a field of female r&b artists dominated by Rihanna and Beyoncé, Ciara was drowned out.
Notoriously impatient with struggling artists, LaFace’s parents Sony and Jive lost confidence in her prospects, and in 2011, after a disappointing experience promoting Basic Instinct, Ciara took to Facebook to publicly accuse her label of hanging her out to dry and asked LaFace to release her; they obliged, and a few months later she announced a new partnership with Epic Records and in May 2012 announced a forthcoming album called One Woman Army and a lead single “Sweat”, featuring rapper 2 Chainz. That single never appeared. Then Ciara announced that “Sorry” would be the lead single instead and it dropped in September 2012; a second single “Got Me Good” was released in October 2012. Then, in April 2103, the entire project seemed to 180 — Ciara released a new track list for the album (gone was One Woman Army— the album was now titled simply Ciara) featuring neither “Sorry” nor “Got Me Good.” Huh? The rollout seemed so disjointed and delayed that it made me wonder if the release would be canceled altogether.
Without a hitch it was not, but for all the red flags this album went through to get here, it works. Ciarajumps out of the speakers. On the first track “I’m Out,” we hear Ciara for just long enough to establish the hook: “Ladies, it’s your song/So as soon as this come on/You should get out on the floor/Go on and get your sexy on,” before Nicki Minaj takes over with a typically raunchy verse that is as immediate as it is memorable. It fits nicely into the female-empowerment club banger category, along the lines of “Single Ladies” or “Run the World.” It’s easy to imagine wine glasses clinking to this song in clubs across the world this summer.
Ciara has long cited Janet Jackson as an influence, but never has her debt to Janet been more obvious. From the Rhythm Nation-inspired wardrobe on the album cover to the baby-making groove on “Body Party” that reminds me so much of “Any Time, Any Place,” Ciara is letting her Janet flag fly high, and it looks good on her. Like Beyoncé and Janet before her, Ciara has always been strong on choreography, so, of course, the songs on Ciara are built with lots of instrumental breaks where we’re left to imagine the lights and choreography that made Ciara famous as an opening act for Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani in the early days of her career — and if her performances of “I’m Out” and “Body Party” at the BET Awards in June were an indication, Ciara’s choreography is sharper than ever.
Co-written with Ciara’s boyfriend Future, “Body Party” wound up being the album’s lead single and it was a clever call to lead with a slow jam before following up with the banger “I’m Out.” From earlier slow hits “Promise” from The Evolution and “Speechless” from Basic Instinct, Ciara has always had success with slow jams. Like Aaliyah on “Are You That Somebody,” Ciara has the rare ability to sound tender without giving up her swagger. I’ve been hearing a lot of nostalgia for ’90s rock recently, so to be reminded of Janet or Aaliyah, or to hear the slow strains of “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ’s underpinning “Body Party,” it feels good to be reminded of ’90s music that I actually enjoyed.
Rihanna rivalry aside, for all its strident, lived-in feminism and empowerment bangers, Ciara actually feels like its sights are set on Beyoncé. Obviously, there is a chasm between Ciara and Beyoncé in terms of chart impact, but Ciara goes a long way towards bridging that gap and announcing a new bolder and more powerful era for Ciara. It remains to be seen if she can find a way to establish herself as something other than Beyoncé-lite, but for all she’s been through, it’s hard to argue that fans aren’t rooting for Ciara to succeed. Everyone loves a comeback.