The chart success of blank R&B songstresses like Rihanna and the newly Timbalanded Nelly Furtado makes me appreciate Ciara's achievements all the more. If their producers hired them as one more sound in a package that's increasingly rococo, then at worst they can just stand there and wail. Ciara has the rare talent, last seen in Aaliyah, for making her stillness signify. The tracks I like best on The Evolution ("Get In, Fit In," "C.R.U.S.H.") regard love as an protean object that's stretched and pulled like the sonics surrounding her. Like Mary J. Blige, she's infatuated with self-help twaddle, but unlike Blige she keeps her distance; there's a hint of skepticism in her voice even when the songs support the interludes instead of the other way around. The Evolution isn't about discovery so much as self-realization; she has to get the interludes out of the way so that she can flesh them out in song. There's still a sense in which Ciara would rather observe a situation than participate, like the chorus of "Like A Boy," which is a long rhetorical question she neglects to answer.
The more I listen, the more I'm convinced that Ciara's roots aren't in R&B; the diva with whom she has most in common is Annie Lennox. Check out that album cover. "Like A Boy" bears a faint similarity -- listen to those strings and Ciara's harmonies -- to "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." No one but deluded homos (of whom I've met a few) ever praised Lennox for passion. Her commitment was in her predilection for camp (until she started taking her success seriously and actually recorded albums called, of course, Diva). But Ciara remains too evanescent; her blankness keeps her airborne. If there's camp in her act, it will be of the literal kind: failed seriousness. She's not guilty of that either.