Ciara‘s self-titled fifth studio album Ciara hits stores today, , but I feel like I’ve been reviewing it for a hundred years. To some extent, I have: The album was first previewed for journalists with its original title One Woman Army last summer, then again this spring; several of the tracks on the record leaked in some incarnation months or even years ago; I’ve written about most of the songs individually, as well as the album preview in April and the stream posted last week.
The timeline of this record says a lot about the life cycle of a recording artist in 2013: How many of Ciara’s fans even expected this album would come out? There are so many hoops, so many variables — especially for R&B divas, who seem to get blamed for pushbacks, delays, cancellations and label drama more than their male contemporaries — and the dismal performance of Ciara’s last record didn’t augur big things for the erstwhile princess of crunk&B. The several false starts to this album era, first with the dated “Sweat,” then the snoozy “Sorry,” then the mostly inexplicable “Got Me Good,” didn’t do much to inspire confidence.
So it took her awhile to finally hit her stride with the excellent “Body Party,” easily one of the year’s best singles: That Ghost Town sample! That fluttery falsetto! That absurdly provocative video! It’s a song that slinks and prowls, all sexy longing, more like a female equivalent of Miguel‘s minimalist sex soul than the urban chanteuses with whom she tends to get lumped. It felt like a fresh start, and it proved to be, as “Body Party” notched Ciara her biggest chart hit in years.
And she delivers on the promise of that first single (even if everyone knew it was actually the fourth) with this, her self-titled album, which feels like a more authentic representation of her vision as an artist than any of her previous records — certainly her last two, the hit-and-miss Basic Instinct and the sharply produced but ill-timed Fantasy Ride.
It’s a lean album at ten tracks: The opening track “I’m Out” was already great but feels even better as an opening statement of intent, with Nicki Minaj‘s freshest verse in years (that Instagram line!), a shimmery summer-anthem chorus and a video that features CiCi as, um, Ciaralyn Monroe, or something. “Sophomore” is one of the sexiest tracks she’s ever cut, with a hook built on a pun that’s nothing short of ingenious, while “Keep On Lookin’” and “Read My Lips” feel like two sides of the same coin, one all trappy, burned-out desire and the latter bouncy, wobbly and sweet even as it’s hilariously explicit. The eerie “Where You Go” and “DUI” are more expansive and diffuse than many of the other, tauter tracks. The beating heart of the record, though, has to be “Super Turnt Up,” which is one of her best songs ever, period: It’s smooth but furious, layered and dynamic, with Ciara rapping against herself against trap-and-blues production.
Ciara runs far too short — it feels like it’s over before it’s even started — but that leanness probably serves her, especially considering how much of the competition tend to overstuff. She doesn’t fall into that trap here. Anyone who’s watched Ciara perform know that everything is executed perfectly — every dance move, every hair flip. She’s a peerless performer. For the first time, the product feels just as sharply edited: There’s a keenness to Ciara that’s rare. It’s probably her best album yet, which is great — but most thrillingly of all, for the first time, it feels certain that this won’t be her last.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: There’s no denying that “Overdose” has massive hit potential: It’s as sugary a pop classic as any in Ciara’s back catalogue, with a storming chorus and that “Somebody call the doctor!” hook that’s instantaneous and addictive. Call it the easiest song on the album to overdose on. (Sorry.)
Pops Like: The biggest pop moments of Ciara’s career, but poppier, and the sultriest R&B moments of Ciara’s career, but sultrier. It’s Ciara, refined.
Full Disclosure: I’ve always had a soft spot for CiCi, especially as setbacks and label drama have resulted in her earning an undeserved reputation for commercial underperformance. There are other R&B songbirds in the game (I’m not naming names) who work half as hard for twice the results, and even have the audacity to shade Ciara along the way. But whether or not Ciara earns her the kind of mainstream success she deserves doesn’t matter. The right people know that she’s the one to beat.
Idolator Score: 4/5
— Sam Lansky