Wednesday, May 6, 2015

album review: 'jackie' by ciara

So here's the thing: even though I was a teenager who listened to popular music in the mid-2000s, I never really got into R&B in a big way. Part of it was that I was busy listening to symphonic metal at the time, but part of it was that the mid-to-late 2000s wasn't a great period for the genre, at least in the mainstream and especially for its female artists. Sure, you had Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige, but the R&B boom of the 90s and early 2000s had faded significantly in the wave of crunk and the rising swell of pop. The male stars of the genre had fared better, with Usher, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and even Justin Timberlake raking in significant rewards, but many of the starlets who had done exceedingly well in the years prior began to struggle a bit.

And one of those artists was Ciara. Now let me admit right out of the gate I was never really a huge fan - her lyrics were frequently underwhelming when they didn't just get weird for no adequately explained reason, she occasionally worked with some obnoxious co-stars, especially early on, and her voice was so thin and delicate that it often seemed peripheral to the music, analogous to Janet Jackson but often lacking that core of strength and personality that I've tended to like about Janet's work. And yet in the era of snap percussion and incredibly minimalist beats, Ciara thrived for a few years. But as pop started to take over in the late 2000s, Ciara's material started to seem a little desperate to hold the spotlight, and that third album Fantasy Ride with its murder's row of top-line producers and guest stars ironically only stole more of the spotlight away from her. And after the follow-up the next year Basic Instinct did even worse, and I assumed, like many, that Ciara's career was over.

And yet in 2013 she came back with a self-titled album and with the rising tide of R&B, she was back on the charts. Now I'm not going to say that record's great - it's not, like most of Ciara's work I tended to find it pretty thin, as I tend to like my R&B more soulful or fiery, although Ciara's voice was becoming more rich with age. And the two Future collaborations didn't help, both of which I assume are there because they were in a relationship at the time. But two years later, the scene has changed - her engagement broke off with Future, her first child was born, her album quietly filled with some more material focusing on that broken relationship, and more cowriters and producers than ever. And as I said, I've never been a huge fan of Ciara's, but I really liked her debut single from this album 'I Bet', and hey, if she was going to spend an entire record taking potshots at Future for being a cheating asshole, that's a theme I can get behind! So how did Jackie turn out?

Well, for me it came out a lot like other Ciara albums, at least for me - a couple really solid tracks, a few duds, and overall kind of feeling all over the place and a little insubstantial for it. But even though we didn't get the eleven solid tracks thrashing Future that the world needed, it's still enjoyable enough and all the more evidence that Ciara is the spiritual successor to Janet Jackson on the charts, which satisfies me just fine.

So let's start with Ciara herself, and let me start by saying that for the longest time the reason I had a hard time getting into her was her very airy, lightweight vocal tone. Sure, it was pretty, and it worked as a good counterpoint against the more aggressive production even as she matched it lyrically, but many times her vocals felt peripheral to the instrumentation or guest stars, even as Ciara made it look easy. But starting on the self-titled album and especially on Jackie, Ciara's charisma and comfort against this production has really started paying dividends, and what works in her favour is that she never makes it sound like work. There is more vocal production than I'd prefer and I'd definitely argue that her jumping on flows that sound like a fusion of Migos, Nicki Minaj, and Azealia Banks like on 'B.M.F.' aren't always the best fit, but her voice is maturing naturally and developing more weight, which is only a positive. Granted, I'd definitely say she's a better fit for softer R&B tones than aggressive Beyonce-esque belting, and there are moments where the latter is just completely underwhelming, like 'One Woman Army', which already sounds like an even less impressive 'Salute' by Little Mix, which was basically Beyonce's 'Run The World' to begin with.

This inevitably leads to the production and instrumentation, which as I said, really is all over the place, and sometimes even within song. Take 'B.M.F.', which starts with sweeping strings and orchestal bombast... but then drops into this weedy synth and hi-hat line that seems like an exercise in atonal annoyance, complete with Nicki Minaj-esque cackles... but after that a minute later it drops into a seething, borderline lo-fi backing synth against the snapping percussion and oily synth that would have been a much more natural transition in the intro. It comes from many moments of the instrumentation just getting in its own way, even on the tracks I do like, often in the forms of sampled vocal fragments like on 'I Bet' or oily little synth pieces that are just a little too tinny for their own good, like at the back of the chorus on 'Stuck On You' that actually is an electric guitar which could have - and should have - easily driven the track, or the blubbery glitchy whooshes all over 'Fly'. And then there's just odd moments like on 'Stuck On You', where the opening beat is slightly off-rhythm, or the terrible, lo-fi synth line and militaristic vibe of 'One Woman Army' - and yeah, I know that's the point of the song, but it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine, fusing military elements into pop and R&B songs, just rubs me the wrong way. As throughout the majority of her career, Ciara's better songs on Jackie are stripped back, minimalist melodies with gleaming synths, a solid percussion line, and enough multi-tracking and reverb to intensify Ciara's presence, like on 'Dance Like We're Making Love', 'Give Me Love', or 'Kiss & Tell'. What surprised me was how damn good Ciara sounds against acoustic instrumentation like on 'I Got You' and 'I Bet' - given how her voice has matured, lightweight guitar is a great compliment with its warmth, analogous to the way it helped Jhene Aiko on Souled Out. Unfortunately, we don't get enough of either, instead with songs that tend towards the fuzzy side of the pop-R&B spectrum with 'Fly' or 'That's How I'm Feelin' that proves that Ester Dean's voice gets grating with gratuitous autotune, Pitbull always tends to be lousy on guest verses and leaves Missy Elliott to just run away with the whole song.

That takes us to the lyrics... and unfortunately, there isn't much here. That's one of the reasons I was hoping for an all-out breakup album, because this being Ciara's sixth album, there are a fair few tracks that seem to fall into a holding pattern: empowerment anthems, dance jams, sex jams, and the helpful differentiation of "the rest". And lyrically... look, it's hit and miss. Take 'Lullaby', a song that interpolates Nelly's 'Dilemma' but then tries to play it that she's trying to knock this guy out with all the hot sex like she's Floyd Mayweather... yeah, even if the timing is relevant, it's not a good comparison to a despicable man who happened to put on a piss-poor and excruciatingly overhyped show. But on the other side, you've got songs like 'Dance Like We're Making Love' or 'Give Me Love', and there are very few in the industry who are as effective at making these sorts of tracks. And that's before we get to songs that are more unique to this record, like the pretty sweet song to her son 'I Got You' or 'Kiss & Tell', a song that's the lyrical equivalent of The Lonely Island's 'I Just Had Sex', but Ciara plays it with enough joyous energy to make it believable. And then there's 'I Bet', which I've talked about before on Billboard BREAKDOWN and is easily the best song on this album for capturing the complicated ending of her relationship with Future, half calm assertion of dominance and acceptance and half genuine remorse. That's one thing I really do like about this record - Ciara might be a more soft-spoken R&B starlet in comparison to Beyonce or K.Michelle, but she's no less assertive, and there's a real core of strength to the vulnerability on this record that I actually found startlingly charming.

So yeah, I actually quite liked this album, even if I don't think it's stellar or even great. Sadly there are too many production missteps and only average writing to elevate it higher, and more than its fair share of filler tracks that could have been replaced with a little invective or fire. As it is, it'll definitely please fans, and it'll show that even if Ciara isn't exactly advancing as an artist in the way some of her R&B contemporaries are, she is maturing. For me, it's a strong 6/10 and a recommendation. Give it a listen, and while you might not like it better than her mid-2000s peak, you might find more to like than you realized.

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