As far back as 2010, Ciara told fans on “Gimmie Dat” she’s “been gone for too long,” yet its the release of her latest album that represents Cici’s longest break from music yet. Four years have passed since Jackie underwhelmed on the charts, despite featuring a career highlight in the song “I Bet,” so there was a lot of pressure to deliver with Beauty Marks.

Rather than veering away from the emotional direction Jackie took, Ciara leans even harder into vulnerability on her seventh studio album, which also happens to be her first release as an independent artist. After consistently giving us dancefloor goodies for the past decade and a half, this could have been a risky move, but Cici smartly brings it all together here with a newfound confidence that’s helped create her most well-rounded album in years.

Ciara first provided us with a glimpse of Beauty Marks almost a year ago with the release of “Level Up,” an undeniable banger that inspired the world to dance in an online challenge that went viral. Bizarrely enough, executives at Cici’s former label believed the track would flop, even though the song and its accompanying video showcase the very best of what she’s capable of. No one else can bring the energy quite like Ciara, and (on the surface, at least) that’s what separates her from other 2000s R&B stars who have since failed to match her longevity.

However, if you really listen closely to “Level Up,” it’s far more than a mere workout party track. With lines like “Thank God I never settled, this view is so much better,” the lead single from Beauty Marks is also a stirring ode to empowerment and self-love, the impact of which can be felt throughout the album as a whole.

Given her unparalleled dance skills, it’s easy to forget sometimes that Ciara is a songwriter too – even though it was her penmanship that first grabbed the industry’s attention back in the early noughties – and it’s because of this that Beauty Marks remains so cohesive. Singles like “Thinkin’ Bout You” and “Freak Me” tap into everything from pop candy to sensual Afrobeats, but across these various styles and moods, every song is still undeniably Cici.

This versatility is apparent from the very first song, “I Love Myself,” which opens the album with a combination of sweet verses and a swaggering hook. An unnecessary guest verse from Macklemore threatens to detract from the song’s message of self-worth, but Ciara’s sincerity is still well earned here and sets the tone for what’s to come.

Whether she’s bouncing over the shimmering synths of “Thinkin’ Bout You” or celebrating her marriage on “Greatest Love,” Ciara has never sounded more positive. Jackie was defined in part by the end of her tumultuous relationship with Future, so it’s freeing to hear the R&B starlet invite listeners into her life with such warmth and openness this time round.

Nowhere is this more clear than on the album’s title track, which ends things on a sentimental note while still avoiding the pitfalls that most album-closing piano ballads usually face. Co-written with Skylar Gray, “Beauty Marks” is one of Ciara’s favorite songs that she’s ever recorded, and in her dance-heavy career, it objectively stands out as one of her best ballads too.

It’s a shame then that some of the other songs don’t quite match up to this high standard. Filler tracks like “Na Na” and “Trust Myself” are fine but ultimately forgettable, and the Kelly Rowland duet doesn’t justify the hype such a pairing should deservedly bring. While few albums are perfect from start to finish, this lack of killer album tracks becomes an issue when you consider that Ciara already released almost half of the record as singles first, thinning out the number of quality new songs on Beauty Marks come release day.

Fortunately, Cici still brings it hard on bass-heavy singles like “Dose” and “Freak Me,” the former of which effortlessly captures the energy of peak-2000s Ciara like nothing else recorded this decade. When she belts out the line “I’m a groundbreaking woman” with a marching band by her side, you really do believe her, and although Beauty Marks isn’t groundbreaking in a conventional sense, it certainly marks a bold new chapter in Ciara’s career.

By marrying the vulnerability of Jackie with the swagger of her earlier work, Ciara has created her most personal record yet while also proving yet again why she’s still standing when so many of her peers have since fallen by the wayside. Beauty Marks opens with Ciara saying “The best thing I could ever do for me is love myself,” and it’s remarkable how true this is, both for herself and for her wealth of new artistic inspiration.

Ciara's 'Beauty Marks' is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.

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