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Ciara's long-delayed third album, "Fantasy Ride," includes one cut for which she's been taking flak. "Turntables" is a duet with Chris Brown, a song the Atlanta-based hip-pop ingenue opted not to remove even after Brown allegedly battered his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna, in a February incident for which he's now facing criminal charges. The song, produced by Timbaland associate Nate "Danja" Hills, does have the whirlpool pull of a hit, thanks in part to the synergistic tension between Ciara and Brown; still, the question remains, why did she feel it was worth the compromise?
The violence between Brown and Rihanna now haunts the R&B scene, and not just those who work with or know the two. We're all still living in the unresolved moment after Rihanna's bruised face entered our vision. Without necessarily addressing that image, "Fantasy Ride" and this week's other significant R&B release, Chrisette Michele's "Epiphany," touch upon the issues that again arose in its wake, confronting the intimate power plays that black American singers have chronicled at least since the time when blues queens like Ma Rainey sang about their "sweet, rough men."
"Fantasy Ride" goes the superheroine route so popular among today's pop ingenues. Originally intended as a triptych divided into one hip-hop-flavored disc, another featuring futuristic club cuts and yet another of seductive ballads, this final version is intriguing but inconsistent.
Ciara follows Beyonce/Sasha Fierce in giving herself an alter ego, "Super C," who supposedly sings the more aggressive songs here. But that Ciara doesn't seem any more false -- or real -- than the one murmuring the duller love songs. Either way, she's an R&B version of Mystique from the X-Men comics, surviving in a treacherous world by constantly changing shape.
More agile than powerful, Ciara takes on different styles as if they were disguises: shimmery on ballads produced by Polow da Don and Tricky Stewart and The-Dream; teeth bared for "Love Sex Magic," her Madonna-esque duet with Justin Timberlake; and simultaneously sneering and operatic on the daring, Ludacris-fortified "High Price." Like so many vocalists in the Michael Jackson mold, she is skilled in the arts of the moan, the stutter and the whisper. Her slim voice responds well to studio trickery, like another synthesizer in the mix.
Her mutability undermines calls for strength such as "G Is for Girl (A-Z)." Ciara's ultimate message seems to be: Avoid real intimacy -- stay on the surface, where you won't get lost or damaged.
Michele, on the other hand, is all depth; it's her music's exterior that some think needs some more gloss. A classic neo-soul artist like her forebear Jill Scott and her current producer, Ne-Yo, she won a Grammy for her 2007 debut, "I Am," but not much commercial success. "Epiphany" adds stronger beats and a few more effects to pianist Michele's John Legend-like sound, but Ne-Yo doesn't betray his protege's character: "Epiphany" is a quiet pleasure that unfolds upon repeated listening.
Unlike Ciara's action-movie dance pop, "Epiphany" requires work. Only the Rodney Jerkins-produced "Playin' Our Song" will get heads bobbing; mostly the tempos are mid, and the mood is fine and mellow. What makes this slow-grower of a disc appealing is the sophistication of Michele's singing. She's wise beyond her 26 years, able to mine the depths of love's contradictions instead of turning them into come-ons and kiss-offs.
Michele uses jazz- and blues-based techniques to cover a wide range of emotions in each song: fear turning into hope on the title breakup song; seductiveness with a twist of anxiety on "Fragile" and the Lauryn Hill-inspired "Mr. Right"; resignation turning into hope on "Another One." Blessed with a curvy, Billie Holiday-like vocal timbre and an exquisite sense of melody, Michele consistently rejects melodrama (take some notes, Amy Winehouse!), instead going further into the nuances of meaningful expression. Ne-Yo adds a bit of sharkskin shine to her classicism, but doesn't undermine her.
This is ground previously trod not only by singers like Scott but novelists such as Terry McMillan and even the Empress of the Healthy Self, Oprah Winfrey. But Michele is more wry than most feel-good sisters, and never sentimental. She doesn't offer any solutions to the predicament of women caught up in sweet, rough love; like those blues queens of yore, she just takes you there. The journey is gift enough.
-- Ann Powers