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Review: Ciara Stays in Her Lane on Jackie—And That’s A Good Thing

5 minute read

If pop stardom is a high school—Beyoncé the straight-A valedictorian, Katy Perry the cheerleader, Lady Gaga the theater geek—then Ciara is the track star. It’s not just because of her athleticism, though her superhuman thighs and gravity-defying back-bends make for must-see videos and should probably be studied by scientists. And it’s not just because Ciara seems to play in a whole other league from the aforementioned artists, kept in the same breath as those women thanks more to the fervor of her fans—her die-hards’ devotion earned a New York Times mention—than record sales. (Though that may not be entirely her fault.)

No, it’s because, over the course of her 12-year-career, Ciara has developed a very specific set of skills, limited in breadth but impressive in their singularity. Like the best Olympic runners, watching her do her thing never gets old, even when you realize she’s technically running around in circles. If you made a drinking game around every time Ciara has asked you to “turn it up” in her career (“it” being the volume, the energy, your sex life), your night would go south very quickly, but to be mad about that would be to misunderstand the whole point of Ciara. Once billed as the first lady of Crunk&B, she’s become one of the most reliable suppliers of frothy, light-on-its-feet party music, mixing the freshest parts of R&B and hip-hop with the drum-machine beats of decades past. Yet though we typically demand two club-banger singles from our divas before a ballad ever hits radio, Ciara also routinely launches album campaigns on the strength of her breathy slow jams. Favoring friskiness over filthiness, they make the club feel like the bedroom and the bedroom feel like the club. She’s basically the closest thing millennials have to their own Janet Jackson.

Ciara’s sixth album, Jackie, named in tribute to her mother after Ciara welcomed a son with ex-fiancé Future last May, continues to hone those skills and then some. The singer’s best album will probably be the greatest hits album she has yet to release, but at least Jackie rivals 2013’s self-titled quasi-comeback as Ciara’s most consistent and self-assured record to date. That record opened with “I’m Out,” a single-ladies anthem that captured the messiness of break-ups in the Instagram age and contained one of Nicki Minaj’s finest guest verses. The new record, too, bursts out of its starting blocks with “Jackie (B.M.F.),” which aspires to expand our hashtag vernacular (picture #bmf — bad motherf-cker — alongside #flawless and #feelingmyself) while also featuring her most adventurous production since linking up with Danja (Britney Spears’ Blackout) on 2009’s Fantasy Ride. Wisely, Ciara keeps the alterations to her training regimen to a minimum.

In fact, nearly every song on the record feels like a companion to at least one other proven track in her back catalog. If slinky, synth-driven Ciara is your preferred event, “That’s How I’m Feelin’,” redeems its Pitbull contribution with a rare (if unremarkable) anchor leg from Missy Elliott. If her EDM workouts make you sweat, “Give Me Love” keeps up the pace of Ciara highlight “Overdose.” And if you’re making room on your calendar for upcoming body parties, save the date for second single “Dance Like We’re Making Love,” a minimal Doctor Luke production that sensually draws out its lo-o-uh-uh-o-ove hook without sounding too pornographic.

Despite the dramatic changes in her personal life—motherhood, a high-profile split with Future that inspired the bittersweet (and controversial) lead single “I Bet”—the album’s most significant evolutions aren’t so obvious. For an artist who dodged using profanity for years, the sheer quantity of F-bombs she drops in the the title track signals more confidence and attitude than ever. That Ciara includes a song called “One Woman Army,” presumably the years-old title track to the scrapped project of that name, shows some artistic conviction, even if its robo-military march is too busy for its own good. Her stabs at more straight-forward pop—”Only One” and the Diane Warren-penned “I Got You”—are fairly conventional. But when a common Ciara criticism holds that tracks can swallow her voice’s personality whole, the fact that she sounds like she could break down and cry while singing about doing so? Now that feels like a step forward.

Staying in your lane doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as Jackie proves. Watching Ciara compete with herself is the more entertaining race to watch.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com