Ciara, depending on who you ask, is either a paragon of resilience or one of wasted potential. 2004 was a long time ago, after all; that’s when “Goodies” came out, and that’s about when she took a throne as Princess of Crunk, which turned out to be as lasting a prospect as Princess of the Holy Roman Empire. (There’s a Lil Jon joke there, somewhere.) The past few years, not the kindest in general to crossover R&B, sent her into limbo. A few cursory releases managed to escape, revered by her cult fanbase and not many others: blunted concept album Fantasy Ride, would-be reboot Basic Instinct and the cloud of shelved singles and would-be leaks that surrounded them both. Some of the singles actually did pretty well, like strip-club fixture “Ride” and Justin Timberlake collaboration “Love Sex Magic,” her last to go top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. More of them deserved to do much better, mostly her hyperkinetic dynamos like “Gimmie Dat.” Her guest features tapered off. She left one major label; joined another. The promo singles resumed, sometimes with 2 Chainz. Things seemed steady and declining.
Slow jam “Body Party” changed all that -- which seems a little odd at first. The single, a sexified rework of Evolution single “Promise” (which by now has had about ten reworks), isn’t that different from Ciara’s former output -- and besides, in 2012 you’d seldom lose a bet predicting the R&B market would pass up straight-up R&B for the EDM- or pop-inflected sort. But just as the latter stuff is engineered for maximum hooks, “Body Party” comes with about five hooks of its own. Two of them are big names: megaproducer Mike WiLL Made It, who’s singlehandedly produced almost half the charts (including, uh, Miley Cyrus) this year, and his collaborator Future, whose every vocal is like a raw nerve. The credits reveal a couple other big names: the writers of the oft-sampled Ghost Town DJ’s classic “My Boo,” which “Body Party” samples at length. It’s possibly the most perfectly tasteful thing Ciara could do in 2013 -- such a good idea that someone else almost had it first -- and catnip to the cult R&B heads and tastemakers who’ve watched in relief as the radio climate began to reward the reflective and sumptuous, like Usher’s “Climax” and Miguel’s ”Adorn,” two massive urban radio hits that owe more to quiet storm and Marvin Gaye than anything trendy. And if that’s too music-heady for you, how’s this for a human element: Ciara and Future are a couple, something “Body Party” and its meme machine of a video (he reads!) makes much of in the grand celebrity tradition. There almost didn’t need to be a song there, and there almost isn’t -- it’s more satin than substance -- but “Body Party” certainly wouldn’t be the first single to become great through context.
Ciara, the artist’s long-gestating album (at one point it was called One Woman Army and probably sounded a lot different), is timed and designed to capitalize on that success. All throughout are whiffs of the commercial. The 2 Chainz track didn’t make the cut, but instead there’s follow-up single and lead track “I’m Out,” which is more a vehicle for Nicki Minaj -- wielding T&A and Weezy F in CAPS LOCK and generally rapping harder than she has since American Idol took her in. Ci’s team clearly knew “Body Party” had something, but maybe not exactly what -- it’s reprised at the end of the album with B.o.B, which is sort of like your uncle tagging along as a third wheel. If you really wanted to, you could go through and classify all these tracks by which trend they hit hard (and, to be fair, better than average): late-night dark and stormies like “DUI,”; swag and high-thread-count wordplay in “Sophomore” and “Goodies” update “Keep On Lookin’”; Valkyrie-choir-assisted clappers like “I’m Out.”
But Ciara seems even better designed for crossovers of a different sort. It’s one big love song of an album, both to her boo -- the crushed-out song tally here is high -- and to turn-of-the-century crossover R&B. The nostalgia cycle’s just catching up to this sound, thanks to millennials who grew up with it, and its airiness is well-suited to Ciara’s voice, which since “Goodies” has matured into something alternately commanding and sugary and elastic like taffy. (At times she sounds a lot like fellow Atlantan Kandi Burruss circa “Don’t Think I’m Not.”) She brings to the delightfully horny “Read My Lips” pinup squeals, pealing melody and the superconfidence of an outsize star; on “Super Turnt Up,” by “Ciara featuring Ciara,” she channels the spirit of Missy Elliott on Supa Dupa Fly. Either could have becomes a crossover back in the day, but in case those don’t hit, Ciara is back-loaded with two even better candidates. The likelier choices is “Overdose,” written by Carly Rae Jepsen / Kelly Clarkson producer Josh Abraham and buzzing like a slightly less busy Dr. Luke; but the true standout comes just before: Wynter Gordon co-write “Livin’ It Up,” with a Kid ‘n’ Play sample and a synth twinkle like Janet Jackson’s “Escapade” tipped off-kilter. In 1990, it could have been a smash. In 2000, it would have been a smash. Hell, in 2003 it would probably still be a smash. Who’s to say what could happen in 2013?