''The past few years of my life have truly been a journey.... A lot of life lessons learned,'' intones Ciara on one of four spoken interludes on Ciara: The Evolution, her second album. Later, in ''I'm Just Me,'' she stops singing to offer some more wisdom: ''I believe life is what you make it. You determine your destiny.'' The 21-year-old isn't much of a philosopher. It's a pity she devotes precious time to these banalities rather than sticking to her strengths: singing stormy club anthems about the war between the sexes. ''Like a Boy'' is a Ciara song par excellence: a stirring revenge fantasy, sung over symphonic keyboard stabs, in which a betrayed lover dreams of acting as callously as her man. ''Girl, go 'head and be just like 'em.../Keep a straight face when you tell a lie/Always keep an airtight alibi,'' she sings.
Two years ago, Ciara rocketed up the Billboard charts with her debut single, ''Goodies,'' a collaboration with crunk kingpin Lil Jon. On The Evolution, the pair reunite for two songs, including the electrifying album opener ''That's Right,'' which combines eerily quiet crooning with a squall of synthesizer buzzes and percussion clatter. Ciara's comfort with rave-inspired beats sets her apart from Cassie, Amerie, Rihanna, and other would-Beyoncés and brings out the best in producers like Jazze Pha, who contributes a catchy, blipping track for the hit ''Get Up,'' and Polow Da Don, whose ''Bang It Up'' is a deliciously dark exercise in crunk-pop. Ciara's singing is nimble throughout: She whispers, coos, wails, and reels off speedy syncopations worthy of Beyoncé herself.
The dance songs are rugged and terrific, but eventually the tempos slow and the album drags. Breakup ballads like ''So Hard'' might start gossips' tongues wagging (Ciara recently parted ways with her boyfriend, the rapper Bow Wow), but the music is a snooze. Why is seemingly every R&B album padded out with four or five cruddy slow jams? It's a shame Ciara hasn't learned another life lesson: Quit while you're ahead.