There was a time not long ago when Ciara was the next big thing. After her 2004 album Goodies and its massive crunk single of the same name, she was set to step into Beyonce’s megastar mega-heels.
Instead, Beyonce kept those heels for herself. And if anyone seems poised to seize them anytime in the future, it’s not Ciara, but Rihanna, whose 2007 Good Girl Gone Bad made her the R&B songstress to beat—a position she’s clung to tenaciously, despite the fact that her subsequent album, Rated R, was so mediocre that I haven’t even heard her most recent effort.
Meanwhile, Ciara’s been mired in mid-list purgatory. She still gets chart action that Teairra Mari, Brooke Valentine or Amerie would die for. But she hasn’t been able to scale the heights of international A-listery. Her last big single, "Love Sex Magic" from 2009’s Fantasy Ride, cracked the Top Ten of the Billboard 100, which is a big deal, but it’s not #1.
Ciara’s lack of success isn’t hard to figure. She’s not a particularly riveting singer—certainly she doesn’t have Beyonce’s powerhouse voice, or Rihanna’s instantly recognizable throaty accent. Instead, her voice is anonymous; a thin, serviceable instrument that you’d be hard pressed to pick out of a lineup. Nor does she have a distinctive sound or vision to call her own.
None of which has stopped her from making a series of good to great albums. The Evolution from 2006 was one of the best R&B moments of the decade, a bizarre slab of Afro-futurism with a series of star producers wigging out to prime funk weirdness while Ciara offered earnest cheesy interludes about the future of music, dance and fashion. Fantasy Ride from last year didn’t scale those heights, but it was still quite good, filled with unexpected samples, great beats, and often surprisingly clever lyrics. It even featured that R&B rarity, an actual affecting ballad, “I Don’t Remember,” about the heartbreak of waking up the next day and not knowing what the hell you did.
Basic Instinct is a worthy follow-up to Fantasy Ride. Named after the Sharon Stone movie, the album is not, alas, a song cycle about the unmatchable cool hotness of murderous lesbians. Instead, its subject matter is more or less what you’d expect: sex, love, sex, and shaking it at the club. Most of the production work is handled by Ticky Stewart and The Dream, probably not coincidentally the duo who wrote Rihanna’s breakthrough hit “Umbrella.”
The results are actually less coherent than the every-song-a-different-sound approach of Evolution. Where the earlier album sounded like a concept, this just sounds like a bunch of different songs many of which include The Dream’s signature “eh-eh-eh” hook. But if the whole isn’t more than the parts, the parts are still enjoyable. The high point is “Girls Get Your Money,” an autotune heavy, infectious girl-group-meets-funk ode to the importance of holding out for cash (“They always want to holla / but they ain’t got no dollars.”) “Heavy Rotation,” produced by Soundz and The Agency, has a full complement of fruity electronica bleeps and skittery beats, with Ciara encouraging her man to turn up that dorky white-boy music because “I don’t want them to hear what we’re doing, soldier.” “Gimmie Dat” is righteous electro funk; “You Can Get It” is a decent ballad elevated by the up-to-the-minute promise of its opening lines, “404-612/hand me the phone, I’ll put it in for you.”
The Dream, in a now infamous interview, opined that this album is Ciara’s last chance at pop stardom. “You only get so many times to, and I won’t say fail, but not achieve. There’s an expectation of where Ciara should be in her career.” If it is her last chance, she’s bombed; the first single, “Ride” with Ludicrous, only got to #42 on the Billboard Hot 100 despite mild controversy around a suggestive video in which Ciara once again demonstrates that her real forte is dancing, not singing. But even if she never challenges Rihanna, much less Beyonce, I don’t see why she can’t keep on keeping on. With seemingly limited talent, she’s managed a slew of moderate hits, three good albums and one near-great one. Nothing to be embarrassed about.