Monday, November 25, 2013

Ciara (2013)



This is the one of the best R&B albums in recent memory. At a time when even so many good records in and out of the mainstream of the genre go on too long and get overblown or overly reliant on a specific style, Ciara is a brilliant antidote in three important ways: it is substantial but quite brief, running under forty minutes which increases its immediacy and the desire to return to it; it is mostly pounding body music with a couple of well-placed ballads that aren't turgid or meandering (no cut exceeds four and a half minutes); and more than anything, it's extremely well sequenced.

This is one of the few modern records with the courage to build upon itself, starting out with an introductory bang but allowing its songs to grow ever more propulsive and exciting until achieving a full-on climax with the last two songs. There are some who may think that "I'm Out," for all intents and purposes a Nicki Minaj song with mere flavorful intrusions by Ciara herself, is the moment that plays all the powerful cards here. But Ciara boasts something rare these days: it's surprising, and consistently so.

Born in Texas but hailing from the fringes of a healthy pop scene in Atlanta, Ciara has long been an adventurous performer with a splendid range of influences. Her voice is similar to Aaliyah's -- quite startling company to be in -- but in the high-concept performance art elements of her aesthetic restlessness, she more readily calls Madonna and Prince to mind, though she already seems to be compromising less than even the boldest performers within the mainstream. In interviews she's mentioned Missy Elliott, and this seems apt. After a string of good records that were commercial mediocrities, Ciara has come to rely on her own brand-building instead of depending upon a label to allow her to develop -- because as you know, they don't really do that anymore. She's moved from LaFace to Epic on what seem to be better terms, and the result is a confident and gigantic leap forward.

Ciara is a party album, but like Prince's 1999 it captures the full range in intensity of a heated night -- beginning with track number two, every selection is a bit more intense than the last, even if not necessarily faster (as opposed to something like Purple Rain or Janelle Monae's ArchAndroid that changes pace and tone repeatedly). You don't need to hear these songs all together to appreciate them singularly -- that collision of soft and hard on "Sophomore," sensual "make Mama proud" bridge versus sneering "so soft my skin so soft my booty" chorus, is as easy and liberating on its own as the youthfully charged, savory "Read My Lips" -- but what's impressive is that the varied, across-the-spectrum smorgasbord of production styles, innovative and dated (and experimental in both directions), complement one another so well that you find yourself preferring to hear this material all in conjunction.

The material on the first half isn't any less appealing or striking than the rest, it's just that it's a gathering of energies, even the hit "Body Party" and the yearning "Where You Go," which might at first seem an outlier. But with "Super Turnt Up" -- which is indeed -- the album kicks into tirelessly playful overdrive, shutting up and driving drunk on "DUI" then spilling into pop-blissful club catharsis on the instant classic "Livin' It Up" and the holy-fuck perfection of the New Romantic-derived "Overdose," maybe the banger of the year.

Through it all, what makes it magic is less the writing and economy -- however endearing -- and mostly Ciara's joyous and expressively nuanced voice, which she wraps around everything with enthusiasm and fully trustworthy passion. But yes, some major part of the brilliance of Ciara is it's the work of a performer who knows her audience, and who means to give an intense and quick dose of thrill that leaves the head spinning, wondering what the fuck just happened. Ten minutes shorter and it wouldn't be enough. Longer and it wouldn't work. As it is, it keeps you stranded on the dance floor wanting more, all the more anxious to play it again.

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