Yeah, Ciara saw all of this coming

Times Staff Writer

Sharking through gridlocked Hollywood Boulevard in a chauffeur-driven SUV, the 21-year-old, mono-monikered R&B; sensation du jour Ciara was running dangerously behind schedule for a not-to-be-missed appointment: the Victoria's Secret lingerie fashion show at the Kodak Theatre.

She seemed thoroughly unconcerned, though, with missing its cavalcade of jiggling supermodels: Gisele, Alessandra, Adriana, et al. Rather than fret at the thought of missing an opportunity to promote her buzz-worthy second album, "Ciara: The Evolution" -- which topped the national album chart last week -- by walking a gantlet of press and paparazzi lining the "pink carpet" at the event, Ciara seemed intent on maintaining positive mojo.

"I feel magic in the car," she said. "It'll work out -- it always does."

That quasi-spiritual uplift and can-do attitude helped rocket the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter, christened "the first lady of Crunk & B" by Lil Jon, from teenage obscurity to the top of the hip-hop/R&B; and pop singles charts inside three years.

Her party thumper-filled, Grammy-nominated 2004 debut album "Goodies" has gone triple-platinum and spawned three No. 1 singles. In the process, Ciara has become the embodiment of both bootyliciousness and female empowerment for generation TRL.

But back to the religious overtones. She speaks of music as her "calling," refers to her career choices as "preordained," talks often of feeling "blessed." And for nearly 15 minutes one recent Tuesday night, after successive cover shoots for XXL and King magazine, Ciara expounded on her belief that "everything in life is written."

"A lot of times, we chase dreams and end up making the process much longer because we're fighting what's really in us," she said over green tea at the Beverly Regent Hotel. "I chose to find my strongest attributes. When I was 14 years old, I knew I wanted to be an entertainer."

Since Wednesday, when national album sales numbers were released, Ciara (pronounced see-AIR-uh) has been the biggest thing in pop. Her '80s electro-inflected "Evolution" moved an impressive 338,000 copies in its first week of release, outpacing new CDs from brand name pop idols Eminem and Gwen Stefani. More impressive still, the singer (who like labelmate and fellow R&B; phenom Chris Brown is renowned for her dance-floor athleticism) co-wrote every song on the album, co-producing much of it with an all-star roster of Top 40 hit-makers, including, Pharrell Williams, Dallas Austin and Lil Jon.

Hence, the album's title.

"I felt a natural evolution taking place in my life as an artist and as a woman," Ciara said. "I wanted to show my fans that I have grown in so many different ways. And I'm a perfectionist. I am involved in every aspect of my career, from accounting to marketing to choreography to writing to producing."

Yet it's undeniable that "The Evolution" comes as the latest entry to a crowded R&B; sub-genre full of grandiloquently titled "statement of purpose" albums by female performers: Monica's October CD, "The Makings of Me"; Mary J. Blige's 2005 "The Breakthrough"; Mariah Carey's smash hit "The Emancipation of Mimi"; and Mya's fourth album, "Liberation," expected out this spring, notable among them.

Further complicating matters for Ciara, R&B; has become so glutted with exotic-sounding one-name chanteuses -- Rihanna, Brandy, Tamia, Fantasia, Beyonce, LeToya, Amerie, Lina, Tweet, Nivea and Ashanti, to name a few -- that MTV VJs need phonetically spelled cue cards to keep them all straight.

But such are the unavoidable music business realities that Ciara (Ciara Princess Harris to her family) manages to keep squarely in perspective, even while attempting to expand beyond her 'tween-age fan base to exert a greater mainstream appeal.

"I'm motivated and never get complacent," she said. "I take advantage of every moment because I realize there could be another girl in my shoes right now."

According to Barry Weiss, the president and chief executive of her label, Zomba, who helped turn teen juggernauts including Britney Spears and N*SYNC into pop sensations, Ciara's evolution could come at the risk of losing some of her younger fans.

"It's a very slippery slope," Weiss said. "She's almost become this role model and icon for young girls. But she is pulling her audience with her rather than leave them behind. She's morphing."

Such transmutability came in handy when Ciara was growing up; a self-described "military brat," she relocated from Texas to Germany to Arizona to California with her family -- dad was in the Army; mom, the Air Force -- before settling down in Atlanta as a high school freshman.

By 14, not long after heeding her "calling" to become an entertainer by giving up her spot on the cheerleading squad, Ciara was recruited and then quickly dropped by the all-female R&B; trio Hear Say. A deal with LaFace Records quickly followed (the label was absorbed by Zomba Music Group in 2003).

A chance pairing with Lil Jon on "Goodies," the title track of her debut album, led to her first smash hit: the sly, female-empowering pro-abstinence song remained at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart for eight consecutive weeks. But it also led to a lasting misapprehension about Ciara's musical leanings. "People called me 'the Crunk & B princess,' " she said. "I'm like, 'How in the world am I that when I only have one song that's Crunk & B?' But I knew that time would tell. And now it is."

(Ciara's trophy haul since 2004 -- three Teen Choice Awards, two Black Entertainment Television Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards, a Vibe Award and her citation as Soul Train's female entertainer of the year -- helps further the impression she's no flash in the pan.)

A few hours after the Victoria's Secret fashion show, Ciara reflected on her remaining career ambitions: to launch her own record label and design a fashion line, to become an actress and sell millions more records than she already has. But the show's supermodel excess and T&A; bombast reawakened another long held dream in the demurely self-possessed "daddy's girl."

"The energy was crazy," Ciara said of the show. "I will tell you right now: It reminded me how much of a model I want to be. I look forward to the day I can walk out on the runway with a really dope outfit and not be an artist. And I still can be, right?"

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