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LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - It was a scalding summer day in Los Angeles as some of the music industry's most distinguished urban artists made their way to the Shrine Auditorium for the 2008 BET Awards. This year's bill featured all the heavy hitters: Usher, Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys and T-Pain assisted by DJ Khaled, Ludacris and Rick Ross.
But what drove the audience wild was Chris Brown's set with Ciara. For a performance of Brown's "Take You Down," she ditched her traditional oversized sweat pants and bedazzled sports bra in favor of a black, skin-tight dominatrix-style cat-suit, thigh-high black stiletto boots and a black wig. The performance's steamy choreography ended with Brown and Ciara seductively staring at each other as the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
The message couldn't be more clear: Ciara is no longer the teen princess of crunk & B (a blend of crunk, a drum-machine-heavy style of hip-hop, and rhythm and blues). Now 23 and with two platinum records under her belt, she's reinventing her career, beginning with "Fantasy Ride," a conceptual album due in the fourth quarter via LaFace/Zomba, as well as a modeling contract and movie roles.
The album features three distinct musical styles, tentatively called "Groove City," full of sensual songs; "Crunk Town," with Atlanta-based crunk music similar to her introductory single, "Goodies"; and "Kingdom of Dance," with uptempo, house-leaning, freestyle-tinged cuts.
Akon, Lil Jon, the-Dream and Ludacris make guest appearances. Ne-Yo, T-Pain and Frankie Storm (from Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music") are contributing writers.
"My mission is to take fans on a musical journey to three different sounds that represent me," Ciara says. "The music flows together. It's about the journey and having fun through music. I can give you a basic album in a 12-song layout, but I wanted to be more creative."
"High Price," featuring Ludacris, and the uptempo dance song "Work" are both in contention for debut single. ("High Price" has already been leaked online. "My feelings were so hurt, because I wanted to present that track to the fans the right way," Ciara says.)
Beyond the music, Ciara recently inked a deal with Wilhelmina Models, an agency that also represents Fergie, Natasha Bedingfield and the Veronicas. Ciara aims to land endorsement deals with beauty brands and fashion designers, similar to the campaign she spearheaded for Rocawear in 2007.
Ciara is also expanding her acting career. She filmed her first starring role in the Jeff Clanagan-produced "Mama, I Want to Sing" a movie that will be released straight to DVD in early 2009. (This is Ciara's second acting role; she made her debut with a supporting part in the 2006 MTV Films production "All You've Got," which starred Adrienne Bailon and Efren Ramirez.)
In "Sing," inspired by the off-Broadway play of the same name, Ciara plays a young R&B pop singer whose views clash with those of her evangelist mother. The film also stars Lynn Whitfield and Billy Zane.
Her various career moves might have been daunting to another performer, but Ciara faces each challenge with a sense of strength.
"What matters is that I know what I know, and no one can change the way I feel," she says. "You have to just be happy with yourself, have an understanding of things around you and grow with that."