"Basic Instinct (U Got Me)," the opening track from Ciara's new album, starts with a syncopated guitar riff lifted from "Eye of the Tiger." The track is half fight song, half apology for Fantasy Ride's lack of a chart-destroying hit: "See I was on the red carpet/When I shoulda been in the studio, layin' down hot shit." Self-awareness turns out to be a good look for Ciara, though the song works because the muscular track totally undermines her self-critique, like she's come out swinging because we were all too stupid to realize how hot her last album actually was. She even directs some preemptive sass at her would-be haters on the net (it's like she can see us dusting off our Sharon Stone jokes), snarling, "You can go and write your blog, I don't need your feedback." J'accuse!
Emphasizing her unfuckwithability is actually a pretty savvy way to raise the curtains on Basic Instinct, in part because Ciara's a survivor in an industry that eats aspiring divas alive and, at that, entitled to a bit of swag, but also because she's a performer who has appeared to take her star-status for granted. She's like the Citrus Fanta of female R&B singers: nobody's first choice, but a serviceable alternative when you can't find Sprite or 7-Up. Basic Instinct won't change that, but it's a damn convincing effort. Eleven tracks long and curated almost entirely by pop-R&B's most reliable songwriting duo, The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, it's a svelte and cohesive collection that serves up one glitzy guilty pleasure after another.
If Basic Instinct turns out to be a bit frontloaded, then, it's only in the best way: There's pretty much nothing wrong with the first four tracks on the album. At the two-minute mark, the brittle rock track behind "Basic Instinct" gets washed out by The-Dream's stately synths, locking a groove that extends through singles "Ride" and "Gimmie Dat," gradually raising the tempo in anticipation of album high-point "Heavy Rotation." It's the masterful type of pop confection at which The-Dream is truly unrivaled, with Ciara vamping on hook after generous hook until, nearly a minute-and-a-half in, you realize that the song hasn't even come to its chorus yet.
Surprisingly, the only songs on the album's second half that sound like placeholders are the same ones that sound like potential singles. "Yeah I Know" is pretty transparent as "Goodies" rewritten for today's disco-crazed climate, while the Usher-featuring "Turn It Up" sounds like a leftover from Versus. Those numbers suggest that Ciara could do respectable business as a Euro-disco fembot (no revelation, since she's always favored R&B of the synthetic, as opposed to sultry, variety), but they're less appealing than the surrounding tracks, which hue truer to Ciara's urban-radio origins. Best of all, the album strictly observes a no-ballads policy; historically, slow songs have proved nightmarish for Ciara, and she compensates for their absence here with a robust offering of slow jams, nearly all of which she hits out of the park.
Color me impressed. It's pretty rare that a singles artist decides, seven years into her career, to make her first concerted effort at an album that works as a front-to-back listen. Suddenly, the underachieving diva starts to look like real competition for crossover starlets like Rihanna and Leona Lewis. About time too: It's not like she's been banging out classic singles on the reg, and in between full-stop smashes like "1, 2 Step" and "Promise," she's often coasted on the good will derived from her highly circumstantial association with Aaliyah. All the same, when she tosses off the more-groove-than-hook chorus to the show-stopping closer "I Run It," does she not succeed at capturing a fraction, if only a fraction, of that singer's effortless charisma?