"Tough yet pretty" might also describe Ciara, her fifth album, which exploded onto the #2 position on Billboard's Top 200 in July (right behind Jay Z, whom she toured with in '09). In its review, the Los Angeles Times dubbed her "one of R&B's most adventurous beat-seekers."
"The album is light and upbeat," says Ciara. "There's a lot of love in it -- a lot of heart and passion. It reflects the spirit and energy that I'm feeling right now. What people are hearing is my true self-expression and the energy I'm living."
She started creating the album, originally titled One Woman Army, two years ago. Gradually it came to reflect a very personal vision full of open feelings. And it turns out a lot of those feelings involve relationships, sensuality, and s-e-x. "I want my fans to get to learn more about me," says Ciara. "I've been very blessed with my success, but my music hasn't given a clear voice to who I am." The resulting album brims with attitude and sizzle; with the song "Read My Lips," you get an innuendo-laden invitation for a guy to go "down, down" on his "favorite dish." Even the gays will find this track delectable!
Which means Ciara is now open to talking about her relationship with the avant-rapper Nayvadius "Future" Cash, who is an executive producer of the album and collaborated on the first single, "Body Party." It's a sultry act of musical seduction ("My body is your party, baby/Nobody's invited but you, baby"). The video imagines the couple's first meeting, where their flirty banter culminates with a seal of approval from Ciara. "He reads," she says, as he walks away.
"He's very understanding," she tells me, "and he's my best friend. It's important to have a feeling that you can talk about anything and know a person's going to be there and support you. When we're together, it's not about who we are. I feel very normal, very safe and loved.
"Being able to speak about it is a whole different thing for me," she goes on. "I'm not thinking or caring too much about what anybody has to say anymore. Once you start over-thinking and worrying, you start getting close to insanity. I want my sanity and a life and happiness." (It's partly for that reason that Ciara won't crank out bitter songs about ex-lovers. "It'll come to light," she says. "Whatever energy a person gives you, they'll have to deal with that. I'm not necessarily going to be so direct in a song.")
"I wasn't trained to sing and dance," she adds, "but I knew I had something special and decided to explore it. I've been growing in front of the world, and I want to keep growing." Dad helped by regularly gliding around with her wherever they happened to be living. "He taught me some of my moves," Ciara beams. "Some mean footwork!"
She initially considered going into modeling -- a no-brainer -- but music beckoned. Her triple-platinum debut album, Goodies, came out in 2004, when she was just 18. The title song was a sort of anti-"Body Party" that hinted at abstinence, announcing that "the goodies ... stay in the jar" -- an ear-catching change from all the other hooker-y stuff out there. "I was young," remembers Ciara, "and wondered, 'What do I want to say to the world for the first time?' Every other song was about, 'Money makes the world go round.' But it has to take more than that." Indoctrinated by fire into the biz, Ciara learned from Missy Elliott, who wrote and performed with her on the Goodies hit "1, 2 Step," an electro-inspired mid-aughts party anthem whose video helped Ciara establish her individual style. She wore a gold cross chain dangling over her exposed navel offset by boy-cut jeans and sneakers.
The gold and silver kept dangling as her second album, Ciara: The Evolution, hit the top slot on the Billboard 200; the subsequent Fantasy Ride provided "Love Sex Magic," a smoky duet with Justin Timberlake. "Every girl loves to dig in and pull out their inner sexuality," Ciara tells me, "but I don't believe you have to force it." One reason she likes the tomboy look, in fact, is that by covering things up she exudes more sexuality than by going the more obvious route.
But then came a rare misstep for the golden girl. Not so sexy was the commercial failure of her 2010 album, Basic Instinct, which went back to R&B basics. The artist started to realize that she deserved better marketing to match her slick moves. In February 2011, she penned an open letter to Jive Records on Facebook, bristling at the lack of promotion and asking to be let go of their arrangement.
When I ask Ciara to elaborate, she cites "creative differences," the need to try new things and the fact that the company was reconfiguring. "Jive inherited me," she says. "They didn't discover me or know me. I was very fortunate that they let me have a go pass, to be able to have a new home." Her release reunited her with her original mentor, L.A. Reid, who then signed her to Epic. "He's the reason I'm here in the first place," she says. "He gives you a strong level of confidence."
As the Epic album keeps growing, Ciara is preparing a tour, but she says it won't all take place in huge arenas. She wants an intimate experience for her fans, to mirror her new, more open-for-business attitude. "I'm making choices I feel good about," she says, glowing. "It definitely feels good to get love from my fans. I work so hard. I'm hoping to share with other young girls, and even men, to never give up.
"And I feel like my journey's just beginning. On this journey, there's much I haven't done. I still feel like a little kid. I still have my youthful energy and spirit. I'm super excited by my future." You're not the only one, princess.
Go behind the scenes of our photo shoot with Ciara:
Styled by Natalie Joos / Hair by Cesar Ramirez using Kerastase / Shu Uemura at Dew Beauty Agency / Makeup by Yolanda Frederick using MAC Cosmetics for Goldfinger Creative Agency, Atlanta.
Producer: Stephanie Porto / Photographer's Assistants: Jeff Allen and Jordan Zuppa / Stylist's Assistant: Yety Akinola / Props: Chris Stone / Digital Tech: Justin Chan
Shot at Fast Ashleys Studio