Play that crunky music

Diva-trainee mixes Atlanta's hip-hop sound with smooth R&B

Eighteen-year-old Ciara Harris has one of the hottest songs in the land, resting comfortably in the upper part of both the pop and R&B Top 10. The summer smash "Goodies" (featuring rapper Petey Pablo) is a thump-heavy, sassy admonishment of guys in search of an innocent girl's "treasures." Produced by crunkmaster Lil' Jon, the tune is designed to pick up where Usher's "Yeah!" left off. It mixes the minimal ass-shaking rhythms of crunk — Atlanta's reigning hip-hop sound — with the smooth, hummable melodies of R&B. People are calling the new sound "crunk 'n' b," and Ciara is poised to become its first breakout female star.

Not bad for a teenager who didn't even take music seriously until four years ago. Born in Austin, Texas, but raised in Atlanta (her parents were military officers), Ciara began chasing her music dreams in 2000, after a missed day of school at North Clayton High allowed her to catch a performance by the slick pop/R&B all-female outfit Destiny's Child on "Good Morning America." The sight of the young divas entertaining the crowd moved then-15-year-old Ciara to tears.

"I felt like I was on the stage and I was singing to [the fans] and they were loving what I was doing," recalls the young singer over the phone. "I really felt like, 'This is what I want to do.' And I was crying because I was so serious."

Suddenly, she realized that showbiz was her calling. A week after her epiphany, Ciara heard that a singer was needed for an all-girl trio named Hearsay. She auditioned and made the group, but the threesome disbanded shortly thereafter. The group's manager then decided to develop Ciara as a solo artist.

She hit the studio in 2002 and started working on her demo. Before long, she was logging time with local producer Jazze Pha, who has crafted hits for neo-soul diva Angie Stone, T.I., Nappy Roots, Aaliyah, Ruben Studdard and a host of other Billboard mainstays. That led to her being signed by LaFace/Zomba Records, which will release her debut album, Goodies, later this month.

"It's about life," says Ciara of her album, most of which she co-wrote with expert songwriters such as Sean Garrett (Usher), Johnta Austin (Toni Braxton, Aaliyah) and Keri Hilson (Ruben Studdard, 3LW). "Everything we go through on a day-to-day basis — love, relationships. It's just life."

The album promises a musical mix, while being grounded in crunk 'n' b. In addition to Lil' Jon, Ciara has worked with R. Kelly, Missy Elliott and Jermaine Dupri. And she's still hoping to cross paths with the guy who put the crunk 'n' b sound on the map in the first place: Usher. "I truly believe that us together would be crazy, as far as what we could do performance-wise," she says. "So many people have been saying, 'You need to do something with Usher.' So I think that would be kinda cool."

While waiting to see if this pairing will happen, Ciara is doing all that's necessary to launch a new career. She's currently on the Teen People Rock 'n' Shop Mall Tour and is also rehearsing for a heavy slate of upcoming TV appearances. She knows there's still a ton of toiling ahead if she's going to be a star.

"The first part of my goal — to get a recording deal — has been accomplished," she says. "I'm still getting started, but I always felt within my heart that something was going to happen for me when I started pursuing music."

So far, it's working. She's at the forefront of a hot new sound, her single is leaping up the charts, and her album is one of the most-anticipated debuts of the season. Atlanta might soon have a new pop and R&B or, er, "crunk 'n' b" queen.