As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie, Kali Uchis, Dan + Shay, Swae Lee, Lauv, Old Dominion, Mitski, Sofi Tukker, Jason Isbell, Saweetie, Shea Diamond and Allie X.
“My comeback on 100,” Ciara announced on this year’s addictive “Level Up,” and she certainly made good on her promise. After taking some time off to focus on her family, the mother of two returned in 2018 with three new songs, two choreo-heavy music videos, one heart-pumping awards show takeover and a string of opening gigs on Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic World Tour. And with “Level Up,” she practically added life coach to her resume, asking fans to set goals and take steps to better themselves physically and mentally — something the singer says has helped clarify her own purpose as an artist.
“My mission is to inject love and inspire and make the world dance, and this song allowed me to do exactly that,” she says. She’ll keep the momentum going in 2019, too: Ciara promises more music and more live shows are in the works. Below, she tells Billboard about the reaction to “Level Up,” the music her kids are obsessed with and why the world can’t get enough viral dance challenges.
It had been a few years since you last put out music. What was it like to get back to that in 2018 and give your fans new songs?
It felt good! In the past two or three years, a lot of things happened in my life, and I have to say, it’s a blessing to wake up every day knowing I’m living my dream. Music is a great part of who I am. So to be able to keep living my dream, and for my fans to continuously support and love what I’m doing, it’s very rewarding, and it’s honestly very inspiring for me as well. To feel all the love that my fans have given me this year has been incredible.
Your medley of “Level Up” and “Dose” at the American Music Awards was one of my favorite awards-show performances I saw this year. Walk me through that night.
That was very special, because it had been a long time since I had performed on that stage. I had so many emotions that night. As soon as they said my name and Missy’s name and the stage screen in front of us went up and I saw everyone get on their feet, I was just taken aback. I felt really proud, and it was definitely a celebratory moment for me that evening, just because it had been so long. And to feel that love — I was ready to get on stage again [after], you know? And obviously every time Missy and I get together, it’s always good energy, good vibes. Even though she’s like my sister, it’s always a sweet thing for me to be on stage with her.
“Level Up” is almost like a life coaching session set to a club beat. What’s it been like watching the song take on this motivational meaning among your fans?
When I was making this song — and my album — I was intentional about what I wanted to do. My mission is to inject love and inspire and make the world dance, and this song allowed me to do exactly that. To see the world react to it so strongly and engage with me, it means a lot.
I always say there are three Ms that are the most powerful forces on earth: music, money and medicine. Music is the most powerful of those three. Music can cure what medicine can’t. People that may be suffering from illnesses or having a battle in their lives go to music for support and for healing. Money can come and go, but music is everlasting. It’s just one of the most powerful forces, and it’s beautiful to use it to have an impact on people’s lives. That’s what it’s really about for me.
And I’ll be honest, I feel more passionate now about making sure there’s always some of that in my music. I would say, “Why am I chosen, out of all of these billions of girls in the world, to do this?” And I feel like that’s for a reason. So when I have a chance to share my life story or things that inspire me, I’m always going to do that. I hope I can inspire people to level up and be their best selves and do that by taking them on a journey with me.
Be honest: Do you ever listen to your own music to pump yourself up? Like, you’re having a bad day and put on “Level Up” to turn things around?
You know, it’s funny, I’m kind of weird about listening to my own music. I don’t like listening to my stuff unless I’m preparing for the stage and stuff like that. But it’s inevitable that I listen to myself in this house because Future and Sienna, especially when it came out, literally had the house playing “Level Up.” At breakfast, it had to be played. Or we have dance parties sometimes in the house with the kids, and it’s a go-to, especially with Sienna — she’s trying to do some of the moves. It’s so sweet. So I actually kind of have to listen to myself.
“Level Up” inspired the #LevelUpChallenge dance videos on social media this year, and we saw something similar happen with Drake and “In My Feelings” this summer. Why are we seeing so many of these viral dance crazes happening now?
I think it’s the power of dance, you know? Dance is a universal language that everyone connects with. I think there’s also a rebirth of dance culture now. Dancing has always been extremely private, and now there’s something kind of new happening in the viral space. Even if you may not be the best dancer in the world, it’s still easy to connect. To see families get together for the holidays and put up their #LevelUpChallenge videos and know that’s a go-to song in people’s households, [it really shows] the power of music and dance coming together to connect us all.
There’s definitely going to be a lot more viral moments happening. We’ve just gotten started with that. These viral challenges started happening literally the day I put out “Level Up.” Not even 24 hours, and kids were already creating videos. The kids of this generation are being more and more creative. It blew my mind. It lets you know the power of technology and what kids can do and what they’re capable of. I think it’s going to be another big year for that.
Is there a musical trend you wish would go away in 2019?
Rather than saying less of something, I think it’d be cool to have more love songs — like back in the days when you’d hear all these different songs from Luther Vandross to Stevie Wonder to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. That was a very special era. Even Janet! One thing I love about Janet is that she always talked about something [in her songs], and I think that our world needs more of that. So I think it’d be cool to have a little bit more of the music that enlightens us and inspires us and spreads love. Because I think our world needs a lot more love amidst all the chaos that’s happening.
Tell me about a gift you’re excited to give this holiday season.
Sienna was the kid that did not like playing with toys, and now she’s starting to get into that, and I got some things she’ll like. We literally have like every toy we would try to give her, whether it’s hand-me-downs or the toy that most kids like, and she wanted to play with everything but toys. So I’m excited about the new toys that she’s getting. And then Future, he’s really into fashion. The other day, my assistant and my makeup artist, they took him shopping. He got a gold Casio watch and keeps saying, “This watch is super expensive” — he thinks it’s the grandest, coolest thing in the world! He was very specific about some of the fashion items he was hoping to get.
Who’s an another musical artist you’d invite to a holiday dinner with your family, and why?
I would invite Bruno [Mars]. He’s so funny, and he just feels like a family member when you talk to him. I think we’d all laugh and have a good time.
You spent time with him when you were opening for his tour this year.
It was really, really amazing crowd every night. The energy was really special. It had been a while since I had been on stage in that setting, so that felt really good as well. Just to get that fan love was very inspiring to me and motivating for me.
What’s a song you couldn’t get out of your heard this year?
Cardi B’s whole album is really good. Drake, obviously. I love [Travis Scott’s] “Sicko Mode” record. Gosh, you know what song honestly is in my head because of my kids? The “Taki Taki” song [by DJ Snake, Ozuna, Cardi B and Selena Gomez.] If you hear that song, it’s going to keep playing in your head over and over.
Were you kids into that “Baby Shark” song at all?
Future was when he was younger. Sisi, she hasn’t heard it as much, but “Baby Shark” was a hit in our house before it was a hit this year. That and “Daddy Finger” and “Mommy Finger,” those songs are massive smashes for the kids.
If you could time travel back 11 months to January, what advice would you give yourself about 2018?
Oh my gosh. Don’t be afraid to be bold. I told myself to level up, and I pushed myself to do it. So I think I took the advice I gave myself? How about that? [Laughs]
Fair enough! What can you say about your 2019 plans?
I’m looking forward to ringing in the New Year by co-hosting and performing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. I have a lot more fun music. I’m looking forward to giving my fans more music and continuing to take them on my journey in life and music. I’ve been enjoying the connection I’ve been having with my fans. So I’m excited about that, and of course touring. I’m looking forward to hitting the road and sharing my tour with fans as well.