In mid-April, Ciara visited Power 105’s The Breakfast Club to promote her current album, Jackie, with an interview that was typical of almost every Ciara interview: meticulously open and overly cliché. Her album was done, she said. It’s her best work to date. She’s cool with her ex, Future. Their son is adorable. The most revealing segment came at the end, after the hosts Angela Yee and DJ Envy played a recorded message from their insensitive sidekick Charlamagne Tha God.
Naturally, Charlamagne used the moment to deepen a previous jab at Ciara: “I said your album was dead, never your career—your album.” He added, “And I never thought you could sing, but I think you’re a great entertainer. Have a nice day.” Ciara appeared unbothered, still all smiles. But for a minute, she was also hung up on the idea that Charlamagne was just not that into her, so she wondered out loud: “I just was really trying to think about, like, what is it with me?”
What is it with Ciara? It’s a question I’ve asked, too. What is she to us? And who would Ciara be, if she knew how to be? Earlier in her career, she was either supposed to be the next Janet or the next Aaliyah, depending on which sexy or tomboyish angle was propped up most. But Ciara is neither iconically sexual nor transcendently effortless. Moderation is more her speed. Every Ciara album has been a virtual blank slate of 808s and mild experimentation. So before deciding if Jackie (her sixth album) is any good, it’s worth asking: What’s the best version of Ciara?
Objectively, it’s dancer Ciara (not ballad Ciara). Fun and flirty over a fast beat. “Goodies,” “Ride,” “Gimme That,” “Like a Boy,” “Leave ‘Em Alone” and almost anything on her 2013 self-titled album or 2006’s Ciara: The Evolution, her peak projects. Give us high BPM and absurdly intricate choreography, with impossible flips over invisible objects. Occasionally, she produces something sexy like “Promise” and “Body Party” and collaborations like Field Mob’s “So What,” a song I recently rediscovered in which Ciara floats over the hook while shrugging off the stigma of dating a drug dealer (it’s produced by her earliest and most in-sync collaborator, Jazze Pha). Listening to that back to back with “Fly” (track 6 on Jackie) is a seamless transition; it’s the same flavor. That’s Ciara.
“Jackie/BMF” is the opening track on Jackie, an album titled after her mom, probably because that’s something interesting to say in interviews. On it, Ciara (accurately) says she’s a bad muthafucka, partly because she’s a new mom—“Man, I just delivered a nine-ounce, 10-pound baby/ I’m a bad muthafucka”—and also because she’s several steps removed from her apparently toxic ex, Future. When the second half of the song switches to a darker skip that’s like a soundtrack to a dungeon walkthrough, she yells “fuck a blog” and sings, “If you been through what I been through, man, you’d be popping this shit, too.” All hollow threats that sound believable enough.
This intro is typical of every good Ciara song and sets the pace for the album’s post-breakup, still-fly mission statement that’s executed on songs like “Stuck on You,” which sounds a lot like a strong redux of “Love Sex Magic”; as she ticks off designer labels (“Margiela, Pucci, Givenchy/All of that fly look good on me”) it’s clear the only point to be made is that Single Ciara is amazing, irresistible and trendsetting. So a song title like “That’s How I’m Feelin’” is apropos; it has her signature bounce and the safe, flirty lyrics that sometimes make her sound like a teenager just adventurous enough to consider breaking curfew 15 minutes late. She sings, “I ain’t easy, but I might just go with you tonight,” as if it’s a major breakthrough.
Where Ciara’s albums tend to lose me is their state of detachment. Even with meaty real-life material in the form of public drama, cheating rumors and a weird breakup, Ciara rarely gets deep enough to make a song resonate beyond it being a pop-lock-worthy dance record. The conclusion I’ve come to is that this is fine, as long as we get some very-Ciara songs, like “Fly,” which starts deceptively slow before thankfully picking up speed, and the acapella club jam “Dance Like We’re Making Love,” and “Lullaby” (except for this sad line: “I can be your Mayweather, baby/ Knock you off your feet”). What is it about Ciara? She’s nothing but a smiling, dancing drone. That is, at the very least, something to be.
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