Ciara's third album leaked last year and was then retooled for its official release. It should've been left alone.
For the normal pop fan, Ciara’s “Love Sex Magic” was likely the song that signaled that the Atlanta-based singer -- once one of the most bankable stars in R&B -- was back on the map and back in her right mind creatively. For the Ciara fanatic, “Love Sex Magic” arguably signaled the end of the singer’s career as it once was.
In reality, the song resuscitated Ciara Harris’ third album, Fantasy Ride, a project that had already gone through three DOA singles and about four times as many release dates. But by saving the album, “Love Sex Magic” signaled just how far Ciara’s star had fallen. The song is a formulaic FutureSex/LoveSounds disco retread produced by and featuring Justin Timberlake, and it sounds nothing like the chrome-plated crunk&b nor the moonlit balladry that Ciara has staked her name on. The song probably could’ve been given to any struggling female singer and become a hit, and the fact that Ciara had to use it as her parachute is as puzzling as it is unfortunate.
Even the bright side presented by the song -- that it gave reason for Fantasy Ride to officially be released -- was dimmed by the fact that about 20 songs from the album’s recording sessions had been circulated in R&B circles over the past year. It put Ciara and her team in the unenviable position of having to construct an album largely out of the batch of leaked songs (though roughly half of Fantasy Ride’s 13 songs ended up staying under wraps), and their choices in that regard hang over the edition of the album that sits on racks in Best Buys.
What’s puzzling about the project is that it doesn’t feature even one contribution from a writer or producer who hasn’t left an indelible mark on contemporary pop music. Fantasy Ride doesn’t represent Ciara’s My December moment (wherein she demands full creative control thusly sinking the ship); instead it features songs written by the likes of The-Dream & Tricky Stewart, Polow Da Don, Danja, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, and Ne-Yo. On most albums, the second-to-last track is where you would stick a throwaway. On Fantasy Ride the second-to-last track was written and produced by Dr. Luke, the mind behind such underperforming tracks as “Since U Been Gone”, “I Kissed a Girl”, and “Right Round”.
What’s even more puzzling is that, a few exceptions aside, the power players all turn in worthy work. The four tracks penned by The-Dream display his knack for being equally good at both peculiar, forward-thinking pop and classicist R&B, and credit goes to Ciara for being able to play both sides deftly. On “High Price” he writes for her a dramatic, swaggering celebration of flashiness, and she responds by singing in a ridiculously awesome and unrecognizable operatic tone. And on his two ballads, the duet “Lover’s Thing” and “Keep Dancin’ on Me”, he gives Ciara two breathy, airy beats that perfectly compliment her falling feather of a voice.
Those ballads seem to be in chase of another “Promise” (her seminal hit from 2006), and when thinking of that song, it’s easy to understand why the other ballads on the album (including Stewart’s sparkling opener “Ciara to the Stage”) also are high watermarks. Ciara possesses one of the lightest and most sensual voices in R&B, and the way she softly coos her ballads is nothing short of captivating.
The flipside of that is that Ciara often loses her personality on faster, uptempo beats, and those songs on Fantasy Ride are where the album sometimes loses steam. On “Turntables” she is overshadowed by Danja’s ghostly beat and by the mere presence of Chris Brown. Both “G is for Girl (A-Z)” and “Tell Me What Your Name Is” are non-entities that should have been left off of the album, and the much-hyped “Work” is let down by Ciara’s lifeless vocal performance. The only real winner among them is Jerkins’ “Pucker Up”, a near rewrite structurally of the Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up” that thankfully retains all of the that song's unstoppable propulsion.
But back to the leaked tracks. Since the album didn’t even come close to reaching a mass audience, it’s likely that those who bought the album are diehards anyway. And so it’s likely that a good percentage of those people were following the songs that trickled out over the past 16 months, and it would be hard for them not to be disappointed by the final makeup of Fantasy Ride. Missing are the glistening ballad “Supernatural” and the effervescent “Click/Flash”, as well as the Danja-produced “Echo”, arguably the best song of her career.
Even still, Fantasy Ride is at worst a highly competent contemporary R&B album. It’s also oftentimes thrilling, which is no small feat considering how much the album was labored over and how often its format and players were changed. Received in a vacuum, it would be hard to nitpick the album, especially considering how limited Ciara’s range can be. But thanks to the rate at which pop demos hit YouTube nowadays, it’s almost impossible not to think more of what’s not on Fantasy Ride than what is.