Before the release of Ciara’s 2004 debut, Goodies, a deserving blockbuster that bottled some of the most exciting sounds of the era, Lil Jon famously crowned the singer “the first lady of crunk&B.” Lately, however, she’s felt like a queen without a kingdom. Crunk&B fell from the charts quickly, and ever since Ciara has been chasing trends instead of setting them. She hit a humiliating low with the 2009 flop Fantasy Ride, a limp stab at dance music, and even 2010’s solid Basic Instinct found her a step behind the times, recording primarily with The-Dream just as his own commercial pull was beginning to wane. In the lead-up to its release, The-Dream described the record as Ciara’s last shot at preserving fame, explaining to one interviewer, “You only get so many times to, and I won’t say fail, but not achieve.” The album tanked.
Arriving after years of label drama and career postmortems, Ciara’s eponymous fifth record is a testament to her resilience. Clocking a brisk 40 minutes over 10 songs, it’s a light, likable effort that achieves its modest goal of never embarrassing itself, but it also represents the singer’s biggest missed opportunity yet. With the album’s window-fogging lead single “Body Party,” co-written by her ascendant rapper boyfriend, Future, and helmed by producer of the moment Mike Will Made It, Ciara came closer to capturing the zeitgeist than she has since her debut. Rather than exploiting the singular pairing of her airy voice and Mike Will’s anti-gravitational soul, however, the bulk of the album opts instead for more anonymous dance and R&B styles, hitching its train particularly to one of 2013’s most overexposed presences, Nicki Minaj, who gets two prominent features (and a third in spirit, when Ciara attempts a sassy-voiced rap on “Super Turnt Up,” proving that almost anybody can rap like Nicki Minaj with the right studio effects). Though Ciara is a perfectly competent album, it’s the least interesting one she could have made given the winning hand she was dealt, and as she should know by now, winning hands only come around so often.