R&B as we know it has been on life support. There’s no other way to put it. It’s wobbly. It hardly has a pulse on the charts. Hell, touch it—it’s ice cold.
Atlanta, once a proud incubator of the sound, has all but abandoned it, focusing all of its creative energy on hip-hop, a genre as vibrant now as it was 10 years ago.
But even though R&B’s prognosis isn’t the greatest, all hope isn’t lost. Modern-day ambassadors of smooth Miguel and Trey Songz are still crankin’ out the hits. Beyonce is still poppin’ up on the nightly news. Closer to home, acts like Keri Hilson and Usher are also doing all they can to keep the genre vibrant—Mr. Raymond’s 2012 smash single “Climax” can still get the club good and sweaty whenever DJs drop it.
Another homegrown talent who isn’t giving up on the sound is Ciara. And if anyone should know about its current well-being, it’s her. Ciara Princess Harris—an Austin-native-turned-A-town-repper—has seen pretty much every side of the industry. She’s been to the commercial mountaintop—her debut single, “Goodies,” was No. 1 in America for seven weeks in ’04—and has had her career dissected after subsequent commercial failures. But through it all, she remains hopeful that the genre she loves and cherishes will thrive again.
“One thing about Atlanta [music],” begins the Grammy-nominated siren, “I don’t know if I’d so much say that something was missing. There is never a dull moment [in the city]. Right now, Atlanta is more hip-hop dominated. There’s a moment where R&B isn’t the most common [sound]. It all just rotates and it goes in a circle.”
And as a show of just how much confidence she has in that last statement, Ciara is releasing her fifth album, a self-titled effort, in June. Some have rumbled as to why she’d record another CD after her last two projects, ’09’s Fantasy Ride and ’10’s Basic Instinct, failed to make a commercial dent. But Ciara is going with her gut, which is telling her that now is the time to get back out there with new material for the dance floor and the bedroom.
“I love my job,” says Ciara, when the topic of album-sale pressure comes up. “I really like the challenge. Anything you choose in life is going to be a challenge, whether it is being a performer or not, being in front of the world or not, it’s going to have a challenge. So, I think it is all about how you approach it. I just really love what I do.”
Ciara, who’s all of 27 years old, may not remember this, but 20 years ago, we had plenty of true R&B stars. Whitney Houston. Mariah Carey. Strong, silky voices dominated the charts. Of the top 20 songs from 1993, 13 were certified soul-music hits. Today, we still have larger-than-life personalities such as Rihanna, Chris Brown and Justin Timberlake on the scene, but look at the top 20 songs of 2012—a mere two were R&B cuts, and one of those was Ri-Ri’s “We Found Love.”
While Boyz II Men and others soared in the early to mid ’90s, by the second half of the decade, tastes started changing. The more you heard from OutKast and Jay-Z, the less you saw of All-4-One and SWV. Not that there wasn’t plenty of meshing between the genres in the early 2000s; there was plenty. The Nelly- and Kelly Rowland-featuring “Dilemma” and Usher and Lil’ Jon’s “Yeah” were easily two of the biggest songs of the decade.
Ciara is another artist who has meandered between these styles with grace. The teenaged singer connected with LaFace Records and producers Jazze Pha and Lil’ Jon in ’04. She dropped abstinence anthem “Goodies” that same year. Girls loved her lyrics. Guys dug her look. The general public liked her Janet Jackson (circa 1986) energy. Ciara’s soul- and rap-fused debut, Goodies, was a monster, moving nearly 3 million units.
In comparison, though, Ci-Ci’s recent efforts have had varying levels of success. The flirty Ciara: The Evolution, which came out in 2006, sold 1.3 million copies while Fantasy Ride failed to score even a fraction of that. By the time Basic Instinct came out, a mix of Jive Records’ lackluster promotional efforts—the artist even took to Facebook writing, “I pray that my label will release me”— and the genre’s waning popularity proved too much to overcome.
But instead of becoming bitter toward the finicky recording business, Ciara accentuates the positive. She’d much rather focus on the throngs of fans who show up for an in-store autograph session; or talk about the folks who attended the 2012 VH1 Divas concert and sang along to standouts from her catalog; or speak on the people who routinely ask to take a picture when they see the star out and about.
“With work,” she explains, “I’m really approaching it with a fun mentality. It can be as simple as a club walkthrough. You know, I’m going to get paid for it, but I would treat it more like a visit as opposed to like, ‘Hey, you are really here with your fans and people that really, really, really love you.’ I have always appreciated my fans, and now I make sure to make the experience more special for me and my fans because you can never get that time back.”
Those faithful followers might be looking for a Goodies revisit with Ciara on this new record, but the artist reminds them, “I don’t think it’s about recreating [past success]. It’s just about making sure you continue to be successful. That is definitely a challenge. I think it is one of those things that, when you overcome it, it is so much bigger in the end, because it is a hard thing for anyone that becomes a target. ‘You’re only as big as your last hit,’ they say. People do have an opinion. It’s all about really building your hidden strength, so you can never lose sight of what the focal point is or what the goal is. You only want to do bigger and better than what you’ve done before. But what good would life be without a challenge?”
Ciara shows off this strength and focus on her forthcoming record. “I really, really have grown,” says the multi-talented performer, also a budding actress who’s been sharpening her on-camera chops on the most recent season of BET’s hit show, The Game. “I feel like you’re going to really get to hear my growth and you’re going to be able to take a different journey with me than you’ve ever taken before because it is somewhat a personal journey.”
The new album’s first single, “Sorry,” is a mature ballad aimed at stubborn guys who won’t admit their mistakes. The second, “Got Me Good,” is a more uptempo number that’s essentially a wink to fans who’ve been around since ’04. While neither song made much of an impact at radio, the third single, the Mike Will-produced “Body Party” is already Ci-Ci’s highest charting song in three years. The track’s sexy, synthy vibe feels like something from a few decades back. It’s intense. It’s sweaty. It’s the kind of bedroom banter that’s been missing from R&B lately.
Ciara co-wrote the tantalizing track with boyfriend and Atlanta MC du jour Future. “It was just one of those records that just flowed,” she details. “You can have a ‘body party’ on many different levels. It doesn’t always have to be sensual, but there’s obviously a sensual element to it. A ‘body party’ can be about giving energy to a guy or girl to slow dance. [Songs] don’t do that anymore.” There’s too much French Montana. Not nearly enough French kissing.
In this Spotify- and iTunes-powered world, we’ll know in a matter of days if the buying public is still interested in the sexier side to Ciara’s story. But win or lose, Ciara is happy with the moves she’s made, and she’s proud to play her role in getting R&B back to a place of prominence.
“It’s the melodic side of where music really comes from,” she says. “Like back when it was the blues. Melody is the core of it all. There is no way that will never re-emerge in a strong way. I feel like we’re going to get there. Truthfully, that’s why I’m excited about my next album. I really feel like it’s going to come back.”