An unstoppable one-woman R&B army returns
Interview taken from the April Issue of Dazed & Confused:
Since she burst on the scene in 2004 with “Goodies”, a crunk-juice-fuelled 18-year-old who still had milk on her tongue, Ciara’s fusion of innovative beats and lithe body-popping has made her the R&B head’s chanteuse of choice. Instead of taking the same route as many contemporaries and relying on a steady stream of urban- tinged synthpop bangers to see her through, Ciara has brought a fiercely independent sensibility to her five albums, working with producers like The-Dream, Lil Jon and Danja to finesse an aggressive yet sensual signature style, delivered with hot- blooded dance moves.
It hasn’t always worked commercially for her, though. Her last two LPs, Fantasy Ride and Basic Instinct, flopped due to uneven content and record company mismanagement. Now signed to Epic, Ciara is unleashing her fifth effort, One Woman Army. It’s her strongest and most diverse album to date, from the mental title track, in which a slow-build synth ramp morphs into a cacophony of drums in the space where the drop should be, to summery pop-jam “Overdose” and “Wake Up, No Make Up”, which sees her speak-rap over a sub-heavy beat with quasi-religious chants. When we meet in her London hotel, she’s keen to emphasise the importance of “bottom-heavy” production – but is there any question that Ciara’s the one on top?
The lead single from One Woman Army is a mid Tempo Track called ‘Sorry’. Was it a conscious decision to make the first release something on a serious note?
With ‘Sorry’, I felt good about going against the grain. It was a real record. Right now hip hop is dominating the urban charts, especially in the States, and I didn’t want to roll with what was happening. I wanted to take a chance in that way.
Did you want to react against the aggressive performativity of hip hop artists like Nicki Minaj?
Yeah. I mean, Nicki was a breath of fresh air for female hip hop because when Nicki started out there weren’t any females in her world. There’s only a few female rap artists that have been successful in the big way that Nicki Minaj is. But in my case, I like taking risks, jumping out and doing something that’s different.
But you were the aggressive one when you came out with ‘Goodies’ and were hailed as the princess of Crunk&B. Did you feel like you had to step up to compete with the male artists of the time?
I just wanted to make my statement clear. I didn’t like being called the princess of Crunk&B, because it wasn’t my sound. I was the first girl to do that sound, but Usher did that sound too (in ‘Yeah’) and he’s not called the something of Crunk&B! (laughs) It was really good to do something that was fresh, but there was and is so much more to my music than just one sound.
What does Lil Jon’s 'Crunk Juice' taste like?
(howls with laughter and buries her head in her hands) I don’t know what it tastes like! That’s hilarious! I mean, if you’re asking what it tastes like musically, it tastes really good. It’s hypnotic, it’s very moreish.
You’ve collaborated with Haitian-American rapper Future several times recently, on the remix to ‘Sorry’ and on ‘Wake Up, No Make Up’. How did that come about?
We’re on the same label, and they had always wanted us to work together. I think his approach to making music is very unique. He doesn’t approach it in the typical rapper way, and he can write real R&B pop melodies. ’Wake Up, No Make Up’ was produced by Mike WiLL Made It and Future in collaboration, so there’s a little hip hop influence in it too. I love being aggressive at certain points in my records, and working with him helps me to tap into a different kind of aggressiveness, because he also has his own. It’s a different perspective. Everything happened very organically on this record. There are the more pop-heavy songs, but there’s gonna be this super-hardcore urban bottom. Me and Future have written a few other songs that are going to be on the album as well.
Are you dating Future?
Uhh... what do I say? (laughs) The energy’s awesome in the studio, and it’s awesome in general.
During The campaign for your album Basic instinct in 2011, you wrote an open letter to your fans asking LaFace to release you from your contract, saying ‘I even spent more than $100,000 out of my pocket on the (‘Gimme Dat’) video to bring my vision to it and still no label support.’
Actually it was over $200,000 I had to spend myself on promotion. I love what I do, but... (sighs) It’s hard when you don’t see eye-to-eye with the team that you’re working with, and our creative chemistry wasn’t fluid. Truthfully, Basic Instinct shouldn’t have come out when it did, because it wasn’t put in a position to succeed. The amount shipped to the stores was very little; my fans pre-ordered albums and never got them. It was crazy! But I was able to learn a lot through that experience, especially as a businesswoman. I believe in me – that’s where it starts, and that’s where it stops.
Does it feel like you’ve come a long way from when you were born in Austin, Texas?
Well, I was born in Texas, but I was raised in Atlanta and I spent most of my life there. I’m a military baby – my father’s in the army and my mother was in the airforce, so I travelled around and we lived in Monterey, California, and we lived in Germany. I had a lot of fun. I ate bratwurst and french fries all the time, and they had great German bread! (laughs) I never did anything in terms of preparing for a career, but I always had a strong connection to music. When I was young I really loved (sings) ‘Been around the world and I-I-I’. Lisa Stansfield! I would be making my mom play the song and singing that over and over.
In 2010 you released a few mixtape tracks, including a brilliant take on Chris Brown’s ‘Deuces’. Most artists start out doing mixtapes, but that was the first in your career. Why then?
I didn’t really do the full-on tape like I wanted to, but I did songs that were of the concept of a mixtape. I feel like nowadays your fans like to soak up as much as they can from you. The bottom-heavy stuff is so important to me, making sure that I’m speaking to the hardcore audience and can rock the stage with rappers, and then still go and do a song with Justin Timberlake too.
My favourite of the mixtape songs is ‘Blauw’, written by The-Dream, where you fake an orgasm at the end. Was he sitting in the booth, like, ‘go on Ci-Ci!’?
(laughs) He wasn’t in the booth when I recorded that one, but it’s always interesting when you have to go there and there are guys in the room recording you. You’ve just gotta go for it and zone out, and act like no one’s there. It’s music, you gotta have fun! You gotta bring life to the record, let it all out.
Your song ‘Like A Surgeon’ is about being on top, isn’t it?
(roars with laughter) You know what? It’s playing with fantasy, and giving the analogy of loving someone and breaking it down like a surgeon.
You basically invented body popping to a ballad. Even with a slow jam like ‘Promise’, you’re going hard in sweats in the video.
My choreographer Jamaica (Craft) and I have worked closely together since I was 16 years old. Dancing is an important part of who I am, and with the groove and tempo of ‘Promise’ I wanted to challenge myself ’cause it was the first more sensual song that I had done. I think there’s something kinda sexy about wearing a little less-fitting clothes when you have to really get down.
Which part of your body gets the sweatiest?
(laughs) Umm, when you’re dancing and getting to it there’s no telling where the sweat comes from!