A Dubya-era star whose pop distillations of crunk failed to win her label’s confidence at the turn of the decade, Ciara Princess Harris has spent the time since then in search of a context. Among her mononymic peers, the Atlanta native distinguished herself with a perfectly calibrated vocal poise. Whether Lil Jon or Mike Will Made It provided the beats she rode them, imbuing her don’t-give-three-fucks attitude with an erotic power. 2015’s Jackie, baited with the Future-dissing “I Bet” and the album track “Kiss and Tell” (as coolly sinuous as LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It”), proved a promising return.
Well, let me proceed to break it down like that. A mediocre album without the ambition to flirt with the terrible, Beauty Marks manages to land in the middle of Ciara’s discography when boldness is required. “Level Up,” dropped last summer, is here, still a vigorous self-reflexive churn. So is “Dose,” a Rodney Jerkins-helmed number whose bass and silt-covered horn chart take it back to the ATL circa 2004. The rest of the material ranges from terrific to blah; when Beauty Marks works, the abyss between the two is like friends who can’t agree on the same version of events.
The strong tracks maintain the level of crunkness without nostalgia. “Thinkin Bout You” thumps: a spare, bass-heavy dance number in which Ciara at her scratchy-voiced best reminisces about a guy who kisses girls and takes names; forget exclusivity, she wants to know if she at last made his list. On “Set” she drills down on the title hook with her inimitable combination of intensity and detachment; often she approaches material as if she’s strategizing how to 1, 2 step away from the pain. And she makes clear why: “I treat my shoe boxes like my bank,” she reminds listeners.
Yet for every “Na Na,” a Latin-tinged pop number that’s an excuse for her to revel in alliterative possibilities, Beauty Marks includes DOA slowies like “Trust Myself” (sure thing) and “Greatest Love,” on which she audibly struggles to invest the phony climaxes with an un-phony truth that they don’t deserve. Collaborations with Kelly Rowland and Tekno flit past too. But they don’t offend like “I Love Myself.” Listening to Ciara deliver psychobabble hurts: she has a temperament that has avoided introspection when possible and been stronger for it without Mackle-fucking-more reminding listeners that he’s worn a #MeToo t-shirt since Harry Truman. Mary J. Blige excelled at this shit; K Michelle is even better.
To blame Ciara for not producing another Ciara: The Evolution, one of the millennium’s toughest R&B albums, is unfair. We fans want an album as chockful of bangers, many of which become hits. Tentative and sometimes desperate, Beauty Marks won’t compete. However, it sounds like the album Ciara wanted to record, and she may get a “Body Party”-sized hit from one of its singles; plus, nothing on the album offends like “Love Sex Magic,” her last pop top ten. The challenge is to find better beats for the homilies that she’s committed to singing.