Ciara: A (Not-So-Brief) Herstory

Thoughts on music’s underrated champion

“My goodies, my goodies, my goodies… not my goodies.” I can’t remember that pivotal first moment I heard Ciara’s voice, but when I reflect on her first single coming out I see images of 14-year-old me singing along on the bus after school with swaths of other teens or dancing in my underwear with my second generation iPod and those then highly uncomfortable little white buds in my ears. (Yeah, I was that kid.)

It was a much simpler time for me; hearing the Top 40 on the local “urban” station was a must — long before music streaming was a thing and car auxiliary jacks seemed to grow from the Earth. We were just kids on the bus— boys and girls — jamming to “Goodies” nearly every day. We lost ourselves in the bumpin’ 808s and allowed her brash, youthful, confident and chiding sexiness take us away.

There was an immediate sense of pride that I (and other Georgia teens) felt for her. She was from “The A” — only about two hours from my hometown, Augusta, and it meant something to see a fellow “peach” make it — particularly a young black woman.

I’m not going to pretend like I thought she’d be the next Janet or Aaliyah. In fact, I thought she’d be a one-hitter — a pseudo early-2000s-Ashanti type — and that I wouldn’t see her again. But I remember being impressed. I wanted to be her. She had all of the hood sensibility (and the singing ability) that I would never have and the way she moved her body was the envy of any woman or man.

Goodies was the perfect debut single. People may sleep on it now, but we all know as soon as we hear that bass and high-pitched whistle beat we’re on the dance floor. And at the time, it was the semi-virginal, girl-fronted response to two other recent southern crunk hits, “Freek-A-Leek” by Petey Pablo (who luckily her career outlived) and Usher’s classic, “Yeah!”

It was the perfect outlet for my good Catholic upbringing. Ciara could sing about almost anything and my parents at least liked the beat enough to dismiss the sexual nature of some of her music or completely miss the fact that she talks about pot (which was like the Boogeyman of drugs in our house growing up) in her third single, “Oh!”

And that video — my God — that video. These were the days when AJ and Free were still the hosts of BET’s 106 & Park; before a revolving door served us mediocre replacements in the later years of the show. All of the black kids would rush home to see what videos made it to the top spots; some even voted. I wasn’t that involved.

But when I saw her do the Matrix for the first time in that video, I was spoken for. She was my new favorite. The video also gave us a real portrayal of Ciara — showcasing her sister and the streets of Atlanta in a raw, down-to-earth way. She wasn’t an untouchable pop star and fashion nova just yet.

As the summer came and passed, the next thing I knew Ciara was back at it again. This time highlighting a dance in “1, 2 Step” and almost singlehandedly ushering in the period of “dance-based” songs like Laffy Taffy and gave rise to bubblegum and ringtone rappers like Soulja Boy.

The beating heart move she does in the “1, 2 Step” video slayed me. Basically, she brought back that black girl dancer image that we lost when Aaliyah left us too soon a few years before.

Even though many pop and R&B aficionados would like to relegate Ciara to the analogs of sometimes good music, “Goodies” was massively successful in the first decade of the 2000s. She rode the wave of what was dubbed “Crunk&B” (explain) and found her niche. Not only did it spend seven weeks at No. 1, at the time it was also the longest-running No. 1 debut single by a female artist since 1977 and came in at spot 31 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Decade-End chart. (And let’s be clear, it wasn’t the only Ciara song to make it on that list!)

She had all the prospects of being a quintessential star at the end of the “Goodies” era — with beauty, good enough vocals, superb dance skills and a street-wise swagger.

Unfortunately, Ciara’s debut was arguably also her peak. Ciara’s sophomore album, Ciara: The Evolution, performed fine, but it wasn’t necessarily the smash that her original effort was nor did it provide as many stellar hits. The shining point was its debut atop the Billboard 200 — her first no. 1 album.

The first single, “Get Up” featuring Chamillionaire, another rapper whose music career hers outlived, was definitely a highlight of the album. The song was promo for Step Up 2, which no doubt gave it a boost, and it peaked at No. 7 on Billboard. Once again, Ciara had me dancing (and soft twerking) in front of my full-length mirror in my undies. The video was highly innovative and seemlessly incorporated CGI effects and even more intense choreography than we had ever really seen from her.

She intuitively followed the dance bop with a slower love song, Prince-influenced “Promise”, which featured her demurely defying gravity on a microphone stand in the accompanying music video. It was sensual and showcased a version of Ciara that wasn’t heavily relying on her dance ability.

None of the singles, however, compared to “Like a Boy.” It served as the perfect quasi-feminist anthem for black women and girls at the time. Before Beyonce’s ballad “If I Were A Boy” and Jessie J’s “Do It Like A Dude” blazed airwaves, the budding empowered black girl of the 2000s had Ciara’s defining, defiant jam.

In the music video (shot exclusively in black and white) Ciara dons tattoos and some hard hood boy attire. She juxtaposes a swagger — that no doubt harkens to her self-proclaimed tomboy roots — with a sensual femininity. At one point, she presents the idea that she’s the only artist in the game who could take herself to task with dancing. As two versions of Ciara (one ostensibly male and the other female) jigged across the screen, she appealed to the inner queer girl in me.

The video is only amplified with eye candy in the form of then New Orleans Saints footballer Reggie Bush, before his widespread exposure as Kim K’s beau. And not only does she set her beau straight lyrically, but at one point she pushes his head with her hand so hard I’m sure Bush still feels it. Then she displays her signature matrix move, elaborating it with smooth slides to the left and right, and brings in a crew of girl thugs ready to assume their power in a patriarchal world.

Interestingly the scene of butch Ciara with one leg over the chair arm (and the general premise of gender play) mirrored Beyonce’s “Upgrade U” video, which premiered within the same week. Though the latter clearly matured into the bigger, more successful artist and star — Ciara can at least lay claim to having more views for her video treatment than Beyonce.

After the release and moderate success of her second album, Ciara was named Billboard’s “Woman of the Year.” But she seemed to hit a slump with third album Fantasy Ride. Despite debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, it was released nearly eight months after its initial date came and passed. It was even more of a disappointment — failing to produce as many top performing singles as her first two albums.

Slated for the initial single, “Go Girl” was scrapped after it’s underwhelming performance on the charts. It spent one week on the Hot 100, but the video proved Ciara had all of spunk and attitude to make it. The video was one of her complex videos to date — featuring a female Clark Kent/Superman story line — and her foreshadowing the presence she would make years later in the fashion world.

The sparkly, disco-tinged silver lining was the lone top 10 hit, “Love Sex Magic,” with Justin Timberlake, which briefly took her back to a tried-and-true formula of heavyweight featured guests. The song showed Ciara going toe-to-toe with Timberlake’s vocals and it essentially features a male and female reincarnation of Michael Jackson in a devastatingly and overtly sexual performance. (Everyone wins.) If we were waiting for an artistic match for the Prince of Pop, we certainly found it momentarily in the Princess of Crunk & B.

The video was as sexy as it was acrobatic. I mean this woman tantalizingly licks the bottom tip of JT’s ear. And at one point, Ciara almost slithers between Justin Timberlake’s legs providing a visual that no other artist in the game could have pulled off so effortlessly.

Visually, the scene with Ciara on barres washed in striped colored lights bears a striking resemblance to Beyonce’s performance in both the video and live performances of “Partition.” (Just sayin’.) Justin is even watching her similarly to Jay Z in Queen Bey’s video.

Even though I’m sure Ciara sanctioned the way Justin controls her body through the slapping of her butt and licking of her chin — she definitely hadn’t mastered the idea of at least appearing more in control of her sexuality. There’s the whole awkwardness of the complete sexualization of a black woman by a white man. Comparatively, Beyonce’s work takes the cake, but in a period before the mainstream feminist movement took hold and admittedly before I was up on my gender and race theory — it definitely worked. Interestingly, Ciara’s choice to work with him on the single and video — despite his well-known dismissal of his involvement in the 2004 Janet Jackson Super Bowl scandal is quite interesting to consider.

Album No. 4 came and went with little-to-no fanfare. Basic Instinct was (and still is) a glaring disappointment to her discography. (Seriously, it was quite basic indeed — performance-wise.) It ended her consecutive string of top three albums debuting at No. 44 and failing to produce a single that could effectively impact the mainstream. It’s main strength was it’s lack of reliance on the poppy, gimmicky glitz of her previous album effort. That being said, “Ride” was an instant favorite for many R&B heads. It was sexy, provocative and in your face.

Ridiculously, the video (though praised by critics) was banned by BET — the same channel that aired BET Uncut (later BET After Hours) for years. The show’s claim to fame was the infamous, Nelly “Tip Drill” video, which featured the rapper sliding a credit card down a girl’s twerking butt cheeks. Need I say more?

The second single, “Speechless,” showed a maturing Ciara and drove home the point that — when stripped down, bare and grasping at her roots CiCi is at her best.

There was also “Gimmie Dat” which featured an assertive Ciara that the world had rarely seen before. Falling in line with Basic Instinct’s opening track — this was Ciara’s FU to the media and the part of the world that constantly said she wouldn’t make it to superstardom.

The video only highlighted her anger at being called out on blogs and elsewhere. It featured military-style choreography a la Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” She also smashed live performances of this single on shows like Ellen and The Tonight Show.

Unfortunately, this era was largely plagued not only by horrible album sales, but also a lack of promotion which she later attributed to her record label, Jive Records. As a fan, I was glad to see this era quickly end and hoped for the best on the next go ‘round. Don’t worry I knew she wasn’t quite done yet, and yes I was still writhing my body in front of mirrors to “Ride.”

During the interim period leading up to Ciara’s fifth studio album, she released a few tracks like “Sorry” and “Got Me Good.” Response to both was lukewarm, but the former gave her a blueprint on being vulnerable and self-assured in her craft following her public breakup with 50 Cent.

The visual treatment for “Got Me Good” was solid, featuring numerous scenes reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” From the children to the random undisclosed location and the dance sequences — she aims to live up to the legacy of The King.

None of the singles released during this period received album status as the effort they were building up to was ultimately scrapped.

2013 saw Ciara return to form with her eponymously named fifth album, originally titled One Woman Army, a definite allusion to past record label issues. It was her most cohesive to date despite a lack of promotion and care, given the announcement of her pregnancy and her engagement to singer Future.

“Body Party” served as the first single and was the slow jam she needed in her new roster. Relying on a sample from Ghost Town DJ’s 1996 hit “My Boo,” no one could deny how infectious it was. It also served as an ode — again — to her roots in Atlanta given that the original was produced by juggernaut Jermaine Dupri who proudly reps ATL.

The video featured her fantasy of things she’d like to do to her on-screen and real-life love interest, Future. She seemed more confident and mature than ever. It was a perfect smash for urban radio and seemed to set the tone for a good album era.

Then “I’m Out,” featuring Nicki Minaj, barreled out from the ranks, exploding with female angst. It was the perfect mix of sexy, sassy and superbly bitchy. Why not twerk while you hate on your ex-boyfriend? The video screamed … well “Scream.” It features the all white, intergalactic feel of Michael and Janet’s timeless duet. It also spewed a similar aggression.

Visually, the “I’m Out” video is one of Ciara’s most cohesive, sophisticated treatments to date. She’s never looked better, more confident To echo a Youtube comment her stylists “deserved a raise” after this video.

The third serviced single by far in CiCi’s top 5 songs. Let’s be clear: Ciara missed out big time on not giving “Overdose” a proper release. That song would have instantly smashed all kinds of charts. It’s pop perfection and showcases Ciara in a rare, fully-realized element. She is both passive and aggressive. Sensual and delicate. It’s the Gemini of musical selections and served as her best stab at pop superstardom. And she finally had the perfect bubbly, poppy instrumental to accompany her soft, often wispy, voice.

The single cover, itself, was enough to garner a significant amount of attention from music blogs. It could have accomplished — on a much smaller scale — what Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” cover delivered us last year. As well, it was certainly influenced by one of her admitted role models and never-ending comparison figures — Janet Jackson — and her 1993 Vanity Fair cover. Both showcase their actual then lovers, but Ciara takes it much further with an almost feminist subversion angle of sexually objectifying her then-fiancé. It was provocative, sexual and alluring; leaving her audience no questions on what exactly she was longing to overdose on. (You know what I’m talking about.)

But amidst a pregnancy and a budding engagement, plans of an official release were scrapped and the end of the self-titled album era came upon her fans depressingly and anti-climatically.

And here we are in the Jackie era — as in it’s out today. I’ll be honest I’m only mildly impressed by what she’s released so far from this album. “I Bet” is an OK single, but she needs more than OK. It’s like “And I” (from her debut album) with an actual beat and an ounce more gravitas. The video, as well, is visually striking (something Ciara is more than good for) but it lacks character and flavor.

Her transparency and vulnerability is refreshing, considering she’s letting her music serve as therapy and as a public discussion of the evaporation of her engagement and relationship. It serves her signature snark, but I want more of a bang.

I want to see her music truly outshine her public life again. For someone with no major scandals (unless you include the broken engagement to singer Future — which is probably more of a blessing than anything else), Ciara has all the qualities to win. Unfortunately, plagued with promotion issues and poor choices for singles — she has been held behind most of her peers.

Think about it. She came on the scene just a year after Beyonce’s solo debut. Rihanna wasn’t even a blip on the international music radar. She’s no Keri Hilson, that’s for sure, but she’s definitely not on par with the former two. I hope this next effort will catapult her back to the top and once again allow her to be known for more than her romantic entanglements.

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