Ciara sings as if singing were dancing. She stretches syllables out into long arcs. She accelerates and then decelerates. She’s almost never staccato, moving fluidly from one word into the next and then through.
In an era when R&B flirts so heavily with mainstream dance music, relying on direct four-on-the-floor antigroove, Ciara’s music is undeniably and refreshingly slinky. All of her movement is between the beat, behind the beat, around the beat – almost anywhere but directly on it.
That makes her among the most liquid and malleable of contemporary R&B singers, but also the most anonymous. Her new self-titled album (Epic), her fifth, is one of the most convincing R&B albums of the year, even if it does a very thin job of being convincing about Ciara herself.
Through most of this album, she’s in lock step with the production, which is vivid, full of vibrating bass and sirens and ghostly aftereffects. These are dense songs, and Ciara wiggles through them with verve, if not personality. She even allows Nicki Minaj to have a verse on her album before she delivers one of her own. (Minaj appears twice on this album, her tartness and ferocity a sun streak across Ciara’s empty sky.)
A groove-focused vocalist often content to melt into the beat, Ciara may be the truest inheritor of Aaliyah’s legacy in modern R&B (except for Drake, though that’s a more complicated heritage). But they are different kinds of ciphers. While Aaliyah appeared as if she were hiding things she’d never let you learn, Ciara doesn’t appear to be hiding much of anything at all. She comes by her blankness honestly.
There’s no pain in her voice, and no lust. And for what it’s worth, no church either, something she shares with Rihanna, though Rihanna at least sounds as if she knows what church is, but would never ever be caught there. Ciara’s voice is clean and without texture, as if it were generated by computer.
Which isn’t an outlandish description. No current female R&B singer allows her voice to be manipulated with effects more than Ciara does, perhaps because she knows that she’s best used as a vessel. More than Beyonce or Mary J. Blige or Keyshia Cole or any other R&B singer of the day, Ciara understands herself as part of a song, not its raison d’être. She is a cog, and if the album credits are any indication – she shares several on this album, for writing, production and vocal arranging – a knowing one.
She is an executive producer as well, along with the rapper-singer Future, who has been one of the most intriguing recent figures in Atlanta music and who is also Ciara’s boyfriend. In the “Body Party” video, they act out a meet cute, and it’s genuinely sweet to watch, both of them with blush-strewn cheeks.
Future figures heavily on the oddest song on this album, “Where You Go,” in which he sings like a scraped-up bluesman over a cheery backdrop of bleeps and bloops that could easily be a One Direction song. But Ciara isn’t up to his weirdness, and the frisson fades quickly. He also helped write “Body Party,” which is a better fit, languorous and wistful and incorporating some sweetness from “My Boo,” the 1995 bass-music love song by Ghost Town DJs, an Atlanta classic.
Ciara sounds exactly the same on both of these songs, just as on the rest of them – the killer nu-disco of “Overdose”; the cheerful electro-pop of “Livin’ It Up,” which could pass for an old Erasure song; the breathily sensual “DUI”; the girl-group future-soul of “Read My Lips.” Notionally, the songs have different subjects – sometimes she’s seducing, sometimes she’s being seduced – but you can rarely infer anything about her mood from her singing.
Rather, you should look to the body. Ciara’s long-demonstrated affection for the sound of Houston’s slowed and slurry screw music, a shadow theme in her best singles – it pops up here on “Keep On Lookin’” and “Read My Lips” – probably has less to do with region and more to do with texture. It’s music designed to emphasize deliberate body articulations.
Early in the “Body Party” video, she’s in silhouette, bending her body into sinuous curves. Soon after, she’s sitting on a couch, only to begin a dance routine that keeps her low to the furniture. At the beginning of the “I’m Out” video, she’s in an aerodynamic white catsuit, side by side with Minaj, who owns the song’s first minute. Minaj raps, and Ciara poses, and both are completely at home.
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