By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
For the benefit of a probably tiny but still vital fraction of Ciara's target audience, I feel compelled to make absolutely clear that "Like a Surgeon," a softcore pornographic highlight of her new album, Fantasy Ride, is not a "Weird Al" Yankovic cover. Too bad. It is instead a gorgeously sleazy robo-r&b ode to our heroine's sexual prowess, expressed almost entirely in really terrible medical-professional puns—"You won't need a second opinion," etc. The rest of the record, furthermore, ably proves that Ciara's love is, contrary to her assertions, absolutely nothing like anesthesia. At its worst, it's a whoopee cushion; at its best, it's a jet engine.
Chrisette Michele's Epiphany, meanwhile, is loaded up with tearful, histrionic breakup songs: "Blame It on Me," "All I Ever Think About," "Playin' Our Song," "On My Own," "Fragile," and, finally, a not even remotely convincing "I'm Okay." Her voice gets called "jazzy" a lot, an affected retro yap designed to invite Billie Holliday comparisons. Her record is thus the smoother, classier affair. Whereas Fantasy Ride is loaded up with big-shot guest stars—Young Jeezy, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake, The-Dream, Ludacris, Chris Brown ($#%^&*!!)—Epiphany just has executive producer Ne-Yo, one of the rare urban-pop badasses with credibility both in the streets and in your mom's living room. Neither album is half as good (nor a tenth as weird) as the deliriously deranged output of 2008 daffy-soul star attractions Solange Knowles or Erykah Badu. Neither has a silver-bullet summer-jam sensation on the order of Rihanna's "Umbrella." But both are oddly fascinating, if only briefly, and if only because they're actually more fascinating the worse they get.
Chart-wise and otherwise, Ciara is a way bigger deal. With a couple of albums and a handful of hits to her name—the sultry, blaring, also softcore pornographic "Oh," which accurately replicates the sensation of being run over by a tank that has neon underlighting, is her finest hour—she has improbably survived an early association with the word "crunk." (To say nothing of "crunk&B.") As usual, every single second of Fantasy Ride is vivid and engrossing, production-wise: Even throwaway intro track "Ciara to the Stage" somehow mashes a hooting monkey into its concussive beat.
But most of her co-stars are sleepwalking: Mr. Timberlake and Timbaland show up to half-heartedly ape their earlier triumphs on the wan "Love Sex Magic," which evokes neither those concepts nor the album the title's designed to remind you of. Reigning heavyweight champion The-Dream tosses in a few decent tracks (including "Surgeon"), but can do way better lyrically than "I'm callin' you on the phone/You keep sending me straight to voicemail." "Turntables" is ruined by the mere presence of Chris Brown ($#%^&*!!) repeatedly singing "Turn the tables on me," which would entail an unpleasant police photo of his showing up on TMZ.com, for starters. Even the cacophonic "High Price," an "Oh" sequel right down to the Ludacris verse, boasts mesmerizing parts (Ciara belts out her verses in an eerie alien falsetto) but an oddly unsatisfying whole.
The real bummer here though is, naturally, the record's big hit: "Never Ever," a vapid Disney-pop reinvention of the Philly soul milestone "If You Don't Know Me by Now" that makes a vivid, complex, fully rounded artist sound like a tittering 13-year-old. If you're picking one thing here to saturate radio airwaves, far better it be "Tell Me What Your Name Is," an exultant Dr. Luke concoction with an appropriately strong Kelly Clarkson vibe and an anthemic young-lust rush that insults neither its singer, nor the singer's target, nor you. Ending the record immediately thereafter with the shell-shocked hangover lament, "I Don't Remember," is a nice touch.
Chrisette Michele aims to forget, too, but hasn't managed yet. Epiphany's slow-burning, chest-pounding centerpiece, "Blame It on Me," is a gloriously oversung kiss-off ballad, wherein she howls, "I ain't cryin' no more" through nearly audible tears, and tries like hell to scale the five-star/10-hankie hysterical-weeping heights last conquered by Jennifer Hudson's version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." That she doesn't make it only exacerbates the pathos—this is primo baby-shaking music. Her vivacious throwback of a voice is a weapon best deployed sparingly: The simple, devastatingly delicate way she sings the titular chorus of "On My Own" accomplishes what a showy torrent of whoa-oh-oh flourishes elsewhere cannot. She's better off imitating singers from this century, anyway—her ever-so-slightly deranged Cee-Lo impression on "Fragile" hits harder than her far more frequent evocations of Miss Billie, Miss Ella, and so forth.
Near Epiphany's end comes "Porcelain Doll," which admonishes a condescending lover for treating her like a clueless, fragile plaything. Preceded by so many bruising breakup laments, it comes off a little delusional—and Michele is in full lookit-how-jazzy-I-am flower, overselling like a bright-eyed American Idol hopeful—but the point stands. When they cut through the schizophrenically calculated poses, the multiple big-shot producers, the clown car of yawning guest stars, and the misguided signifiers (from "retro" to "crunk&b"), both records have tremendously rousing and assertive moments: vibrant new jams for low-riders and supper clubs, respectively; distinct talent in no particular need of a second opinion; ability to dare to be anything—even stupid.