Pop music, not in the loose sense, but in the major label-backed, manufactured, and profit-driven Top 40 pop sense, has the potential to be really weird. Yes, it is market-driven and often full of artifice, but it has always been inextricably linked to the subcultures that defy and evade it. Pop music’s mainstream is a digestion engine, an algorithmic function whose input is the whole of culture and whose output is the same, but in an aesthetically unified and deliberately packaged form.
Being one of the biggest-budget, mostly highly-anticipated albums of 2013, one can treat Ciara as both a precise barometer for culture and as an imperfect hallucination of it. Other albums falling into this category from 2013 have given us a splintered pop-ego that’s difficult to locate the self in. Yeezus was a virile, unvarnished expulsion of ego, a contradictory surrender to and resentment of Kanye West’s own fame. On the other hand, Jay Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail is getting called out by pretty much everyone as epitomizing how the endpoint of the capitalist subject is less posthuman than non-human. My point in referencing these albums is that, in captivating by refusing to be relatable, they defy the logic of popular music itself. We look to pop stars as representations of an ideal by which to transcend the plodding anti-glamour of daily life, but some sort of identification with the transcendent figure is necessary for people to give a shit in the first place.
Ciara is not that kind of pop album. Self-titled, concept- and filler-free, stripped of unnecessary guest spots, and carried the whole way though by a contagious pop playfulness and a willingness to try on different styles, Ciara is the singer’s most realized full-length to date and one of this year’s most thrilling pop moments. The record is a strange balance of creative energies, benefiting from Ciara’s unclassifiable magnetism as a performer as much as it does from the self-fulfilling bombast that accompanies a pop star who’s finally filled out the outline of their star persona, who’s finally completed the unexpected yet completely expected leap to success that signifies the dutiful climax of a pop narrative. It’s a triumph in the merger of the universal subject with the solipsistic, an expansion that from a different angle looks like a collapse.
Ever since a 19-year-old Ciara Princess Evans dropped her debut Goodies to mild commercial success in 2004, her artistic persona has skated around the continuum between cold R&B diva and teen culture pop cheerleader, a dichotomy that was probably less a personal project and more due to the requirements of adapting to existing pop formulae as a commercially-driven artist. After slogging through nearly a decade of uneven sidesteps, label woes, and an unsure artistic vision, Ciara emerges on her fifth studio effort as a pop force to be reckoned with, a singer with a singular style and artistic ethos that will appeal to both the sonic mainstream and the fringe alike.
Ciara keeps it simple without shirking from complexity by harnessing as its subject matter the most simple yet nuanced thing we humans do: sex. This preoccupation with intimacy was forecasted a few months ago by “Body Party,” the lush, spine-tingling lead single produced by Top 40 beatmaker de jour Mike Will Made It. While the bulk of the album doesn’t quite match the single’s level of slowjam magic, the straightforward yet vulnerable sexuality conveyed in the lyrics, transmitted through Ciara’s crystalline, airy falsetto, birth an immersive, sensual experience for the listener that is sustained through the entirety of the record. Contrary to dudes like Kanye and Hov, whose long reigns at the top have isolated them from their fans, there is a palpable closeness between Ciara and the ragtag but devoted audience she has garnered over the years, a rarity in an age where our idolatry meets an increasingly distributed network of personalities, symbols, and ideas.
The words and vocal deliveries Ciara uses to explore intimacy are sometimes direct and straightforward, and at other times filtered through metaphors that are absurd for their insistence on evoking coitus through the mechanics of whatever metaphor she’s using. If the songs were shitty, this forced figurative language would probably be unbearable, but subsumed in Ciara’s unstoppable momentum as a visceral experience, it only serves to heighten the novelty of it all. “DUI,” for example, hinges on a driving-as-sex metaphor and a refrain of “I’m driving under the influence of your love,” which is admittedly a pretty lazy concept for a song. Somehow, though, the track is saved by its own arbitrariness: it’s never really clear whether Ciara is singing about having sex while driving a car, using cars to explore the topic of sex, or some kind of debauched combination of the two, but this embrace of nonsense actually ends up heightening the sensual impact of the track — Ciara is characterized by absurd, inexplicable moments of irreverence, the only solution to which is the willing absorption of pure aesthetically-designed auditory data.
A handful of tracks on Ciara work to refine the slinking, minor R&B-pop style that she herself pioneered in the mid-aughts, now updated for 2k13 with all the latest hi-def production tricks and a savvy intuition for the ever-illusive form of the pop zeitgeist. The woozy standout “Keep On Lookin’” works in a spare, icy melodic vein reminiscent of the singer’s early work, but the sonic backdrop is utterly now, switching out the bubbling uptempo beats of “Goodies” (2004) for a Houston-referencing trap drawl whose caverns of blank space allow for Ciara’s breathy harmonies to fill up more headspace. The track is so good that it almost makes one wish that the rest of Ciara would just comply to work in a similar vein, but the focus of the record is relentlessly broad.
On its first half, this anything-goes strategy pays off: “Read My Lips,” which directly follows “Keep On Lookin’,” finds Cici in full-on bubblegum mode, doing Disney Teenstar Young-Girl better than some people who actually fit that description. Over sunshine-y chords and bouncy, half-organic drums, she tells the listener to “savor it, savor it” in an adolescent whine totally void of the emotional drive and minor-key iciness that typifies a Ciara vocal, a naive devotional that’s positively and uncannily Taylor Swift: “I just wanna take care of you, baby/ You’re the only one I wanna give it to/ This is all for you.”
“Read My Lips” gives way to another fully realized vibe shift, a surprisingly affecting duet with Future that somehow manages to balance trancy, ethereal chords with acoustic orchestration and hyper-sentimental lyricism. The only other features on the album are courtesy of apparently new BFF Nicki Minaj, whose classically ADHD, overstuffed rhymes on girls-night-out opener “I’m Out” play perfectly against Ciara’s restrained bravado. The two produce only slightly less synergy on “Livin’ It Up,” a kinda-contrived mid-tempo number whose self-affirming mantra rehashes Minaj’s own “Starships.”
With less focused tracks like “Livin’ It Up,” Ciara dwindles a little towards the close of the record, perhaps a consequence of there being so many bangers on the first half, threatening to terminate with the uncharacteristic sidestep that is “Overdose,” with its uninspired Euro-house sonics and familiar vocal melodies. Thankfully, the record ends on a weirdly transcendent note with a timely remix of “Body Party,” reworked in house-y double-time and with a characteristically cybernetic vocal from Future and an uncharacteristically not-terrible verse from the Atlanta-lite emcee B.O.B. Missteps aside, the Ciara of songs like “Body Party” and the other best material on Ciara is an undeniable force of nature — the extract of pop itself, elemental and slippery like an invisible, omnipresent particle in the air.