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Rising out of the urban clubs of Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-to-late 1990s, crunk—a Southern-slanted hip-hop sub-genre—soon found larger ubiquity in the first half of the 2000s. There would be many (male) ambassadors for this movement, as it transitioned from its underground origins to its mainstream perch: OutKast, Three 6 Mafia, Lil’ Jon and more. But, it was the Atlanta, Georgia headquartered singer-songwriter-dancer Ciara Harris that became crunk’s female face with her LaFace/Zomba Records sanctioned debut Goodies (2004).
Buoyed by the hits “1, 2 Step” and its title track, Goodies hit the platinum mark three times stateside and secured several gold certifications abroad to mark the expansion of crunk into “crunk&B,” an alliance between the hip-hop super strain and contemporary R&B that echoed the R&B and hip-hop coalescence of the late 1980s that birthed new jack swing. For those eager to dismiss Ciara’s first brush with success as “beginner’s luck,” her sophomore album Ciara: The Evolution (2006) brazenly trafficked in other rhythm and blues sonics to cement her as an undeniable presence in the Noughties soul space.
As the decade wore on, several of Ciara’s peers went on to stratospheric success, others dropped into intermittent recording patterns before slipping into obscurity. Balancing the seemingly dichotomous principles of innovation and convention, Ciara prevailed through changing tastes and record label interference to offer up a steady stream of material that saw her either precipitate or usurp urban contemporary trends with ease.
But, Jackie (2015)—Ciara’s sixth album—revealed a bit of wear and tear in its tepid song stock; its lackluster commercial performance didn’t assuage this creative quandary either. Now, fifteen years removed from her recording genesis, Ciara returns with Beauty Marks, her seventh record that excitingly evokes the respective peaks of Ciara: The Evolution and Basic Instinct (2010), while managing to eclipse both with a newfound focus on her craft.
This newly minted discipline is likely owed to both her recent professional liberation—Beauty Marks is Ciara’s first release on her own boutique imprint of the same name—and the contentment of her personal life with husband, NFL star Russell Wilson. Thematically, this thread is weaved throughout Beauty Marks en masse, but reverberates most noticeably on the LP’s two bookends, “I Love Myself” and the title song. Each entry here bears Ciara’s mark as a writer and co-producer, and while the collaborative roster reads like a full house—Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Skylar Grey, J.R. Rotem, Tricky Stewart, J. Pierre Medor and others—it is irrefutably Ciara’s project and subsequently she steers the direction of its songwriting and production.
Black dance music and hip-hop soul remain Ciara’s preferred method of aural expression. The former is delivered vibrantly in electro-R&B colors, either cast in current or classic tones as heard on “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Greatest Love.” The latter aspect finds it pulse on “Set” and “Girl Gang,” neon-flecked exercises that function with their beats and grooves tightly intertwined for maximum dancefloor consumption and enjoyment. Out of those second-mentioned pair of tracks, “Girl Gang” finds Ciara partake in a busty girl power tag team with former Destiny’s Child icon Kelly Rowland; it’s just one of three other feature tracks alongside Macklemore (on “I Love Myself”) and Tekno (on “Freak Like Me”) that feel organic, not forced.
Amid her sonic staple marks, Ciara doesn’t forget to accessorize with other sound vibes too. “Na Na” and “Freak Like Me” form a one-two tropical punch of worldbeat rhythms that will ensure their permanent playlist placement for the upcoming summer season, but it is “Dose” that sits as the standout of the LP. Mining HBCU martial music—complete with authentic punctuated percussion and a flavorful brass arrangement—Ciara works up a sweat on this empowerment jam. The middle-eight for “Dose” brings the melody and groove home by utilizing some sprightly guitar in cooperation with her subtle, sweet vocal notes—a notable vocal approach that continues to serve Ciara well as it is used throughout Beauty Marks with winning results.
To call Beauty Marks a “comeback” would shortchange Ciara’s continued endurance in an industry arena that tends to favor disposable convenience versus longevity. Beauty Marks is a consolidation and confirmation of Ciara’s skillset across eleven musical confectionaries set into a fetching mainstream R&B style with spirit to spare. And while Ciara has yet to unleash her true masterpiece, an effort as consistent as Beauty Marks hints that she is closer to doing just that with her next project.
Notable Tracks: "Dose" | “Girl Gang” | "Greatest Love" | “Thinkin’ Bout You”