Evolution is a very sophisticated scientific concept; it is neither “controlled” by fate nor subtly nudged along through the whims of some kind of superpowered “intelligent design”. Rather, it comes in fits and starts for every species and subspecies, due to spontaneous mutations getting passed down over millions of years. In fact, each particular mutation is much more likely to be disadvantageous, resulting in the death or disfigurement of an organism, than a change that would actually lead to a species changing forever.
So why a beautiful young singer with only one album under her belt would want to compare herself to such a long, drawn-out, more-or-less random process is beyond me. I imagine she was really going for something like “Metamorphosis” or “Positive Change” or “I’m Deep Now”.
But, yeah, “The Evolution” sounds a lot better. So she is forgiven. Of course, if this album wasn’t so much fun, I would probably be a lot more annoyed by this issue, and by a lot of other things. The little snippets where she tells us about “the evolution of dance” and “the evolution of C”—they would really get my goat, if there weren’t a bunch of awesome songs here. But there are. So my forehead remains smooth with unworry, while the rest of me moves convulsively to big fat pop hooks.
By now, if you actually listen to the radio or accidentally leave your house, you have heard “Promise”, the first single. It is slow, it is weird, it is massive. There isn’t much Ciara here; her voice sounds tiny and clipped next to Polow Da Don’s track, which features a whole passle of lead-footed slammage, little tickly rhythm noises, and vocoder madness. But even though her vocal track is more or less another instrument here, she still sounds heartbroken and kind of sincere, and it works. It ain’t genius, quite, but it’s close enough for me.
Another huge track is the opener, a Lil’ Jon jam called “That’s Right”. It’s powerful booty-bass-lovin’ bubble-crunk to the nth degree, so much so that we actually hear Lil’ Jon himself telling Ciara and/or us to all “get crunk” and “break that back” about 500 times. This will end up being a moderate hit, but sadly I fear that the superior but subtler “C.R.U.S.H.” will get ignored, which would be a shame because it is a truly great Lil’ Jon pop song containing the excellent line “I love me some you”. (I’m gonna try that one the next opportunity I get.)
I can’t say I’m the hugest fan of “Get Up”, the Jazze Pha track that is bidding fair to be the big dance hit from this album. Despite a nifty brief rap from Chamillionaire, the song has no center, no emotional impact, and a surprisingly spartan bassline in a song that cries out for bass. (Notice again how I didn’t really say anything about Ciara’s vocals.) But Will.i.am’s track “Get In, Fit In”, which follows, is actually pretty good in the role of Completely Manufactured Pop Confection.
Another great dance song: “I Proceed”, a Neptunes track that sounds like mid-1980s Berlin doing a double-dutch song. A very bad pop-lite song: “Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone”, which has 50 Cent playing the role of a sexy “dope boy”, yuck. Boring mid-album filler: “My Love”, which is about as distinctive as its title. (Okay, there are some cool processed vocals here.)
The ballads mostly come at the end, and they’re all pretty not-so-hot. “So Hard” is a slog, but it at least proves that Ciara might be able to actually sing if she worked on it. She is clearly overmatched on the penultimate track, “I’m Just Me”, but it’s more of a rhythm thing whenever the synthdrums go doubletime than her actually not being able to hit any notes.
But the album’s closer is a really quite beautiful and moving epic suite by Dallas Austin called “I Found Myself”. Here, Ciara becomes a whole choir to tell us about her journey of liberation. I’m not sure I’m buying that idea from a 21-year-old pop star, but I don’t need to buy the idea, just the song’s warm creamy sonics and the message that rebirth is possible. On a crappy day, this song could help, is all I’m saying.
I want Ciara to succeed, because she seems to be a nice fun sexy pop star and we need more of those, so I’m probably overestimating this album a bit. I also want her to get better, which is why I’m churlishly criticizing her lack of vocal power. If this is all the voice she is ever going to have, then she better give up the ballad thing and stick with the dance-hop and the bubblecrunk. With some work, and some luck, she might be able to introduce a couple of mutations here and there that might change her as an artist. In pop, you don’t have to wait millions of years. You can just decide to go another direction, and go there. You might even have fun along the way.
But for now, we dance! And we hit the skip button when things slow down!
// Notes from the Road
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