Ciara-cover

Last June, Ciara held a listening party in New York for her upcoming album, One Woman Army, due in October of 2012.

So much for that.

In retrospect, One Woman Army would have made for a more fitting title for Ciara’s fifth studio album, considering the R&B-pop princess endured such a long and complicated uphill battle: Delays. Pushbacks. Scrapped singles. Acoustic bathroom sessions. Onstage legal action. Rihanna‘s shady Instagram attacks. Accidental album leaks by her own team.

But now, over a year later, the album is finally seeing the light of day — albeit with a new name, the vastly less SEO-friendly Ciara, and a refocused sound. 

Trouble first began to brew for Ciara immediately following the release of her last record, 2010’s Basic Instinct. The album utterly tanked on the charts, barely limping onto the Billboard Top 200 at #44, largely due to her label LaFace’s refusal to fund the project.

As a result, she pleaded for release from her label in a candid letter on Facebook, eventually allowing her to jump ship and sign with LA Reid‘s Epic Records — the man who originally signed her to LaFace.

The label was quick to support Ciara, but the campaign took off to a rocky start: Her lead (“buzz”) single with 2 Chainz, “Sweat,” stalled upon arrival. Her follow-up, “Sorry,” unapologetically bubbled under at #122 on the Hot 100. And her third, November’s “Got Me Good,” failed to get any chart love at all.

The situation was looking rather bleak.

But CiCi pressed on, recording more songs, until she finally stumbled on the winning formula during a session with producer-du-jour, Mike WiLL Made It: The result was “Body Party,” a slinky slice of early ’90’s R&B-infused, Janet Jackson-lite seduction.

With Top 40 radio still filled to the brim with sweat-drenched EDM, Ciara managed to buck the trend, quietly sneaking in just ahead of the curve before the downtempo R&B trend really started to affect today’s pop. As a result, “Body Party” nabbed CiCi her first Top 40 hit since Fantasy Ride‘s “Love Sex Magic” with Justin Timberlake in 2009 — a major victory.

And that’s how CiCi, who had been gone for far, far too long, finally begun to bring it back.

Ciara4

It’s been three years since the release of Basic Instinct, an album that saw Ciara trying to reassert her street cred (something more urban, as Britney would say), spitting out fiery verses on the album’s intro track and grinding up against hard, rough beats like “Ride” and “Gimmie Dat.”

Since then, she’s smoothed her sound over significantly with her self-titled 2013 release, toning down the ratchet leanings of her last album with a slick, glistening R&B sheen — or as I call it, ratchic.

Not that she’s letting that raw attitude go: In fact, the album’s lead track, “I’m Out,” is the most in-your-face offering on Ciara; a twerk-happy anthem for the ladies, featuring her “I’m Legit” BFF, Nicki Minaj. Admittedly, the song is largely dominated by Nicki’s spitfire verses — one of her freshest, fiercest features in years — but that doesn’t make the song go any less hard: Look no further than the rump-shaking, “Scream”-inspired video or the spot-on performance on the BET Awards earlier in the week. It’s a win for both.

Later on, Ciara issues an all-out warning above chopped and screwed vocals and a menacing, slow-stuttering beat on “Keep On Lookin'”: “Keep on lookin’ / Keep lookin’ on witcho lookin’ ass,” she sasses above the murky beat, crafted by Cam Wallace (who also co-produced Beyoncé‘s “Upgrade U.”) Bye bye, haters.

But for the most part, CiCi’s in the mood for love: The slower slices of R&B are where Ciara spends most of her time. While she’s known for her fiercely uptempo bangers, Ciara’s served some incredible slow jams over the years: From The Evolution‘s “Promise,” to the space-pop of Fantasy Ride‘s “Tell Me What Your Name Is” and “I Don’t Remember,” to the grind-ready grit of Basic Instinct‘s “I Run It.”

But Ciara’s breathy coos and come-ons feel more genuine on Ciara, and that’s probably because…well, they are.

When “Body Party” first premiered in early March, the songstress happily giggled about the song’s inspiration to Billboard: The song’s co-writer Future, her current boyfriend, who can be heard providing some, um, background noise on the sexy slow sizzler. “Your body is my party / Let’s get it started,” Ciara breathily flutters, smacking up against a headboard-banging beat and a steamy sample of Ghost Town DJ’s‘ “My Boo.”

“Let’s just say that this record came out of a very sincere place,” she explained, as if to say the song was recorded mid-romp (and, if their palpable chemistry in the song’s accompanying video is any indication, no one would be too surprised.)

CiCi keeps the seduction coming on “Sophomore,” her Soundz-produced advanced course in sexual education. “So soph (my skin) / So soph (my booty) / So soph (my bed) / So soph, got ’em saying gimme more,” she moans above the spacey synthesizers and tripping drum loops.

“DUI,” meanwhile, is one of Ciara‘s most arresting productions (pun!), bristling with light electronic tingles and a funky undercurrent, which drifts along with all the bow-chicka-bow-wow of a ’70’s porn soundtrack. “I’m driving under the influence of your love,” Ciara sensually coos above the hot and heavy, replay-friendly production.

But of all the tracks, “Where You Go,” her duet with Future, is perhaps the most left-of-center offering: Floating on top of a barren guitar strum and weird electronica warbling, the Mike WiLL Made It-produced electro-ballad sees CiCi and her boyfriend trading off reassurances in times of trouble: “My loving goes on and on / Every single night and day / I’mma be there for you,” she confides. And though it’s sort of taboo to compare the two given the longstanding rivalry, the song’s not unlike one of Rihanna‘s moodier Unapologetic tracks, including her own duet with Future, “Loveeeeeee Song.”

“Super Turnt Up (feat. Ciara),” however, is thoroughly, unmistakably the very essence of CiCi — and one of the album’s shining highlights. CiCi’s been known to command a vaguely indecipherable vernacular (“He reads!”), and this track’s no exception. What’s a turnt, you ask? How does one get turnt? Furthermore, how does one know if they’re super turnt up? Those questions won’t be resolved mid-song.

But in all seriousness, “Super Turnt Up ” is genius — even with its initially puzzling “feature.” The Jasper Cameron-produced track uses Ci’s “Promise” as a template and then, well…turnts it up: “I’ll give this love to you / So baby, come get it, get it” she coos, before the track suddenly dives into a hard, dub-textured slow grind. “I’m super turnt up,” Ci declares, as if we didn’t already know. “There goes my baby, he be putting it down,” she swoons. Later on, Ciara reappears — this time as a rapper — acting tough and bossily spitting lines: “I keep it so fresh / Ziplock, I’m gonna go eeen,” she brags. It’s not the first time she’s brought in an alter-ego (remember Fantasy Ride‘s Super C?), but it’s certainly some of the most fun she’s ever had on record.

Ciara continues to let herself get loose as Ciara goes on — or at least, her panties: “Read My Lips” is a bouncy, breezy bout of thinly veiled references to cunnilingus. But as much nasty, naughty fun as it is, there’s no denying that this is territory treaded already by her on-again, off-again rival RiRi: Talk That Talk‘s “Birthday Cake” and “Watch N’ Learn” saw RiRi navigating her man’s mouth down south long before. Still, that doesn’t make “Read My Lips” any less tasty.

By the end, Ciara’s purely in a pop state of mind: “Livin’ It Up,” which slipped past the radar on a free Cosmopolitan playlist last year, is another one of the album’s most major moments: Co-penned by the always genius Wynter Gordon and produced by D’Mile, the fresh, Island-infused anthem shimmers with a summery vibe, embracing the #YOLO-pop phenomenon without ever coming off as trite. “I’ll be wrong if I don’t try / I don’t know when my next meal’s coming / All I know is I’ll be runnin’,” CiCi confidently declares, launching into the breathy chorus (which includes a chant lifted from Kid N Play‘s “Rollin’ With Kid N Play.”) Nicki Minaj joins in later — a last-minute addition for the album — providing a very Pink Friday brand of inspiration. Unlike “I’m Out,” her verse doesn’t enhance the experience. But hey, whatever works.

The album’s grand masterpiece, though, comes at the very end: “Overdose.” I’ve already preached about the greatness of this track, even begging Ciara herself to release it as a single, for well over a year now. But let it be known once again: “Overdose” is a pop radio smash in waiting. It’s sleek, sidewalk strut-ready and begs for some of Ciara’s finest back-bends, hair flips — and various other corporeal contortions.

With endless earworm melodies (“Do-le-do-le-do-le-do-le-go!”) and the solid pop sensibility of a killer Britney production, “Overdose” is the most fun there is to be had on Ciara (apart from “Livin’ It Up” and “Read My Lips”), and certainly one of her hottest tracks to date.

Ciara’s always been underappreciated and overlooked as a pop star. It’s unfair, given that her music never stopped being good — from “Goodies” to “Work” to “Gimmie Dat” to “Body Party” — and her live performances often blow her contemporaries out of the water. (She is, after all, one of the greatest dancers in the game.) But this time around, Ciara’s got a record — and, more importantly, the label support — that should deflect the shade. Who knows? Perhaps even Rihanna will log off of Twitter for the day.

With only ten tracks, Ciara runs a bit short — The Evolution and Fantasy Ride both offer a lot more to chew on — but it certainly does feel like her most consistent, cohesive record to date.

Whether that’s because she’s head-over-heels in love with Future, or because she’s been deemed a priority again by her label, or simply because she’s just super turnt up, Ciara’s found herself in a good place once again — resulting in one of the best pop records of 2013.

You can now listen to Ciara streaming in full on iTunes.

onemuurating onemuurating onemuurating onemuurating halfmuurating

Ciara will be released on July 9. (iTunes)