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Keri Hilson and Ciara: midriffs, vault-licking, and ... empowerment?

Dueling Atlanta R&B talents have new albums, negligible attire and mixed messages

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Keri Hilson and Ciara lead a new generation of female R&B performers, a group less known for mirror-shattering pipes than boundary-pushing raunchiness. Closer in image to Karrine Steffans than Whitney Houston, they're expected to craft diss records, be hip-hop fluent and to enjoy being slathered in baby oil.

The ascendant Hilson has taken a much different route to fame than Ciara, who finds her career on the downswing. But both have model good-looks and are backed by superstar producers. Attempting to woo both young ladies and grown guys on their new albums — Ciara's Basic Instinct drops December 10 and Hilson's No Boys Allowed drops December 21, although these dates could change — they feel compelled to preach girl power while simultaneously shaking their money makers. Watching them battle to wear Atlanta's R&B crown has been fun, however, and not just because they're wearing stilettos.

Rumors of beef between them sprouted last year with Hilson's "Turnin' Me Off" remix, which featured lines like, "I been puttin' you on, just check the credits ho." Considering Hilson co-wrote Ciara's 2004 song "Ooh Baby," folks thought it a CiCi (and a Beyoncé) diss. Earlier this year, Ciara dedicated her new record's hard-edged title track to her "haters," and didn't explicitly deny it was a response to Hilson. The situation came to a head in August when the New York Daily News insinuated the pair squabbled backstage at a New York concert, which led to Hilson not performing. Hilson's camp denied these reports, and rivalry rumors were squashed in October when the pair appeared on a Ustream feed together. Noted Ciara: "We're women, supporting women, uplifting each other."

There is no doubt about that first part — yes, they're women, and to promote their new albums they've each gone out of their way to let you know it. For Hilson, it's been something of a shocking transition, although it feels like old hat for Ciara Princess Harris, who came up as a military brat before landing in Riverdale. She was still a teen when she earned the unholy "princess of crunk & B" moniker; it was 2004, crunk was peaking, and her Lil Jon-produced single "Goodies" had critics and fans in a lather. A Britney Spears-like tease, the song played up her innocence ("If you're looking for the goodies/Keep on looking 'cause they stay in the jar") while the video showed her off in a black onesie, as well as a long-sleeved T-shirt that covered her arms but strangely not her midriff.

On subsequent albums she continued showing her navel but came out of her shell. Formerly dating teen star Bow Wow, she began sexing up her image for videos such as "Can't Leave 'em Alone" (from Ciara: The Evolution), where she canoodles suggestively with rumored flame 50 Cent. But as crunk has fallen off and each of her albums have sold worse than the previous, she's experienced something of a fall from grace, culminating in a controversial 2008 Vibe cover that depicted her nude. (She claimed she was actually clothed for the shoot and implied that her clothes were airbrushed out; Vibe's editor denied this.) Basic Instinct has her back in black onesies, or less; she navigates a mechanical bull for her "Ride" video while clad in a wet tank top, which was apparently enough to get the work banned from BET.

Hilson, meanwhile, came up in plush Lithonia as a strict Christian. A member of Timbaland-affiliated songwriting collective the Clutch, she broke out as a performer in his 2007 smash "The Way I Are." In the video she wore a conservative bob, and while promoting her 2009 debut, In a Perfect World... (a surprise hit), she told me she didn't have trouble staying true to her Christian values: "It's possible to be 'in' the industry but not 'of' the music industry," she said.

Judging from her new video, "The Way You Love Me," however, she seems to have been swept up by it. Glistening and barely clothed, she grabs her boobs and even licks the door of a vault for some reason. Hilson also turns up on the cover of this month's Vibe. Instead of the air-brushed-nude look, she goes for full-on dominatrix: black bustier, dangling neck chains and a leather pilot's cap.

Despite her recent vamping-up, Hilson's image remains more complex than Ciara's. Her videos are as likely to objectify her male co-stars, such as "Turnin' Me On," which focuses on her pleasure. The video for the No Boys Allowed single "Pretty Girl Rock" is an homage to female artists from Josephine Baker to TLC, while the takeaway from "Breaking Point" is that he's a jerk and doesn't deserve you. For contrast, the message of Ciara's 2009 track "Never Ever" is "he's just not that into you."

Indeed, the name of Hilson's new album indicates that she's unavailable to lesser males (she don't want no scrubs), while Ciara's Sharon Stone-referencing title shows that the, um, cookies are out of the jar. While both singers appear willing to do whatever's necessary to succeed in a floundering industry, Hilson appears more confident these days. As any guy will tell you, that's the ultimate turn on.

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