The Week In Pop

Ciara Is Living Her Best Life But Not Making Her Best Music

With all due respect to her formative influences and one-time contemporaries Destiny’s Child, Ciara is a survivor.

First of all, she survived the era that made her a star, that mid-aughts moment when rap and R&B were largely synonymous with pop, particularly figures from her native Atlanta like Outkast and “Yeah!” costars Usher, Ludacris, and Lil Jon — to say nothing of the thriving factions out of NYC, St. Louis, Chicago, and Houston. Ciara played a unique role within her scene, contrasting crunk’s aggro stylings with a breezy fluidity not unlike Janet Jackson. Alongside associates like Dre & Vidal and Jazze Pha, she made a name for herself with lithe and airy R&B tracks, breathy soprano finesse, and dance routines that snapped as hard as the beats. She hit #1 with “Goodies,” the title track from her 2004 debut, but the one that spun this collegiate indie-rocker’s head back then was her magnificently gliding hip-hop dance track “1,2 Step” with Missy Elliott.

The hits were plentiful back then. Between 2004 and 2006 Ciara hit the top 10 seven times. Often she did it with duet partners who are now trapped in the amber of that era, like Chamillionaire and Fatman Scoop, or guys who only remain in the public eye due to acting and other onscreen ventures, like Ludacris and Bow Wow. Surveying the names behind the biggest hits of those years, I’m reminded of how fleeting a mainstream music career can be. You don’t really hear about Chingy or Lloyd Banks or Amerie anymore, but Ciara has persevered. Although she’s long past her commercial peak, 15 years later she remains a star.

She can partially chalk up that endurance to one of the more rewarding discographies at the intersection of pop and R&B. After Goodies came The Evolution, which really did push her sound in fascinating directions, both woozy (“Promise”) and intense (“That’s Right”). By 2009’s Fantasy Ride, she was already proving her longevity, hitting the top 10 again with Justin Timberlake duet “Love Sex Magic” and continuing to diversify her catalog with assists from The-Dream, Young Jeezy, and her old pal Missy Misdemeanor. By the following year’s Basic Instinct she was falling into a rut, but she returned creatively rejuvenated with 2013’s self-titled LP.

Which brings us to another thing Ciara survived: her whirlwind romance and tumultuous tabloid breakup with Future. It started out so beautifully, with the two of them teaming up to write “Body Party,” one of the signature triumphs of Ciara’s career. Over one of the luxuriantly stretched-out Mike Will Made-It beats that defined that moment, her delicate yet powerful voice was invigorated, leaning into syllables as she proclaimed, “My body is your party.” The rest of the album proved Ciara could sound as good in the trap era as she did in the snap era. Meanwhile she and Future got engaged and had a baby together. And then, as quickly as it came together, her storybook scenario fell apart at its bindings.

Ciara broke off her engagement to Future in 2014, just a few months after their son was born after Future allegedly cheated on Ciara. This set off years of legal drama, with the two artists suing each other over custody and libel matters for years even as both settled into new phases of their lives. Future went full heel, funneling his new villainous reputation into a series of legend-making mixtapes culminating in his #1 album DS2. Ciara swung hard in the other direction, striking up a romance with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Citing their Christian faith, the couple abstained from sex until marrying in 2016 — a surprising pivot that subjected her to no small amount of mockery. A year before making it official with Wilson, she released Jackie, an angry, diverse, wildly underrated album that nonetheless tanked commercially.

Since then, Ciara has been living the dream. She and Wilson settled into a supportive marriage and welcomed a child together in 2017. Eventually her court cases with Future were sorted out and tensions between them dissipated, at least publicly. The Wilsons have engaged in philanthropy, hobnobbed at the Obama White House, and goofed off on social media, going viral with their contribution to the #InMyFeelingsChallenge. Last week they posted a celebratory video from bed after Wilson became the NFL’s highest-paid player. And tomorrow Ciara will release her first album in four years, Beauty Marks, via her newly formed Warner affiliate Beauty Marks Entertainment.

Jackie was recorded during a time of major transition. Preceded by the phenomenal breakup ballad “I Bet,” it felt more like fallout from Ciara’s relationship with Future. Thus, Beauty Marks is the first album to document her transformed life, and appropriately it begins with a statement of purpose explaining how she got from point A to point B. The midtempo empowerment anthem “I Love Myself” swings between warmly sentimental verses and a swaggering hooks. Not long after boasting that she only cries happy tears these days, she sings, “No more drama, no more pain/ Ain’t gon’ make the same mistakes.” It’s a nice track, one that exudes contagious self-respect and gratitude, but there’s no obvious reason it should go on for five and a half minutes. One part that could’ve easily been lopped off is an appearance from Wilson’s buddy Macklemore, whose camp-counselor bars instantly turn the song into goop.

Beauty Marks continues to strike that confounding balance between ingratiating and aggravating. Last year’s minor hit “Level Up” is an exhilarating rhythmic tornado, but even as someone who, like Ciara, has spent a lot of time coaxing spoons into young children’s mouths lately, I don’t understand why the hook has to be “You know you want this yummy, yummy all in your tummy.” Her Kelly Rowland team-up “Girl Gang” bangs, but its sloganeering hook about “squad goals” and whatnot feels like a rote imitation of “7/11″ by two talented singers who, for various reasons, already exist in Beyoncé’s shadow to an extent. Afrobeats star Tekno’s guest spot on “Freak Me” is the opposite of that Macklemore guest verse, the moment when a tryhard song exhales and enjoys itself for a moment. “Set” and “Na Na” are propulsive but too generic to connect.

There’s still a lot to like. “Greatest Love” pleasingly mashes together languid balladry with icy synths while Ciara expresses her adoration for Wilson in no uncertain terms. “Thinkin Bout You” is a bright Technicolor counterpart to Janelle Monae’s Prince homage “Make Me Feel” that pulls off Taylor Swift’s “ME!” vibe better than “ME!” does. (Maybe that’s why Swift loves it so much.) The brisk and hard-hitting “Dose” is classic Goodies-era Ciara with extra drumline oomph and some encouraging advice: “When you fall, just get back up again.” She tinges the ’90s R&B throwback “Trust Myself” with believable romantic melancholy, and “Beauty Marks” — another paean to the love she shares with Wilson — is the rare album-closing piano ballad that pulls off sentimental without dipping into saccharine. When Ciara sang, “If nobody’s perfect, then all that I want is to be imperfect with you,” I felt that.

That’s the thing about Beauty Marks: It’s consistently admirable, often enjoyable, but never anywhere near essential. The album bursts with positive messages — about valuing yourself enough clean up your act, about how marriage can be empowering rather than imprisoning, about loyalty among friends, about the inexpressible gratitude that springs from unconditional love — but rarely do its songs tap into the exhilaration that characterizes the best pop music. As with Gwen Stefani’s own sunshine-through-clouds album from a few years back, Beauty Marks feels paralyzingly safe, laser-targeted to appease Ciara’s existing fan base and attract Ellen viewers into the fold.

It’s not like Ciara has ever been known for her bulletproof filler-free albums, and happy endings are notoriously difficult to translate into compelling creative expression. But there are plenty of records about marital contentment that manage to be incredible works of art, too, from Beyoncé’s self-titled tour de force to Kacey Musgraves’ moony masterpiece Golden Hour. Compared to ambitious albums like those, Beauty Marks comes off like your average mid-career release from an established star with a faithful base. Ciara is too good at her job to put out garbage, but her latest collection suggests that from a creative perspective, the hardest thing to survive may be happiness.

CREDIT: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Stagecoach

CHART WATCH

Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” has been #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a month, so it’s starting to feel weird to think about its continued success as an underdog story. Yet with its fifth week atop the chart, the song feels like it’s upsetting the established order of the music industry all over again.

The table seemed set for Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie’s “ME!” — which technically debuted at #100 last week based on initial radio plays — to triumphantly rocket to #1 in its first proper week on the chart. Instead, as Billboard notes, Swift and Urie have to settle for a record 98-spot leap to #2, breaking Kelly Clarkson’s 96-position vault from #97 to #1 with “My Life Would Suck Without You” in 2009. “ME!” becomes Swift’s 23rd top 10 hit and Urie’s first as a solo artist. It’s also the best-charting single of his career, surpassing Panic! At The Disco’s #4 peak with “High Hopes” last year.

“Old Town Road,” meanwhile, becomes the first song to record four separate weeks of over 100 million streams and now owns four of the six best streaming weeks ever. And with its music video still to come, “ME!” might have a hard time ever making it to #1. And Swift hasn’t had a lead single fail to reach #1 since “Mine” topped out at #3 in 2010. What a time to be alive! The rest of the top 10: Post Malone’s “Wow.,” Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” Halsey’s “Without Me,” Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With A Stranger,” Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” and Khalid’s “Talk.”

Over on the Billboard 200, Pink enjoys her third #1 album with 115,000 equivalent album units and 95,000 in sales for Hurts 2B Human. It’s a radical downgrade from the 408,000 units and 384,000 sales boasted by her prior album Beautiful Trauma in its first week, but it’s better than any other album managed this week. In at #2 is worship band Hillsong United’s new People with 107,000 units and 101,000 in sales. Both figures are the largest for a Christian album this year, says Billboard.

Debuting at #3 with 81,000 units/18,000 sales is Schoolboy Q’s Crash Talk. Nouveau pop royalty Billie Eilish, Khalid, Ariana Grande, and BTS are at #4, #5, #6, and #7. At #8, AJR score their first top 10 album with Neotheater via 32,000 units/22,000 sales. Beyoncé and Nipsey Hussle close out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Zayn & Zhavia Ward – “A Whole New World”
So happy for Zayn. He successfully escaped the tyranny of teeny-bopping to [checks notes] remake the song from Aladdin.

Shawn Mendes – “If I Can’t Have You”
It’s only been a year since the last Shawn Mendes album, but you gotta have new material for SNL, so here’s this. It’s about what you’d expect, a super-catchy and approachable pop song laced with guitar, designed to appeal to offend no one, be liked by most, and loved by Mendes stans only.

Madonna – “I Rise”
This is the most naturally Madonna has adapted to the sound of a moment in a long, long time. I don’t think I’ve vibed with one of her singles like this since Music. Officially tentatively excited for Madame X!

Kim Petras – “Blow It All”
I prefer songs that really let Kim Petras wail, so although the new ones have been solid, they’re not blowing me away like “Heart To Break.”

Blink-182 – “Blame It On My Youth”


NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber & Ed Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care” is out tonight. [Instagram]
  • Perhaps relatedly, Bieber is working with YouTube on a top secret project. [ABC]
  • TS7 will have more songs than any previous Taylor Swift album. [EW]
  • On her birthday, Adele hinted at a new album on Instagram: “30 will be a drum n bass record to spite you.” [Instagram]
  • Post Malone is launching a marijuana business, Shaboink. [TMZ]
  • Post is also releasing more Crocs — but only in Australia. [Instagram]
  • Madonna accepted the Advocate for Change Award at the GLAAD Media Awards. [USA Today]
  • Pitbull, Daddy Yankee, and Natti Natasha shared a video for “No Lo Trates.” [YouTube]
  • During her performance of “Party In The U.S.A.” on Saturday night, Miley Cyrus shouted “Free Britney!” [USA Today]
  • In other Spears news, she got a restraining order against ex-manager Sam Lufti. [TMZ]
  • 21 Savage announced the I Am > I Was Tour with DaBaby. [XXL]
  • Logic’s new album Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind is out tonight. [Instagram]
  • Jonas Brothers will sing any banger Emma Thompson wants in this SNL promo. [YouTube]
  • Vanessa Carlton will make her Broadway debut playing Carole King in Beautiful. [People]
  • Katy Perry unveiled her new hamburger sneakers. [ABC]

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