There are few occasions as momentous in pop culture as the release of a new Madonna album. Hard Candy is no exception, not least of all for the much-vaunted collaborations with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. Madonna has always scored big because of her work with up-and-coming producers, but now Madonna is following the herd which makes Candy taste stale right out of the box.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few good moments here: “Heartbeat” is a great electronic hip-hop jam. But it’s nearly ruined when she exclaims, “See my booty get down!” That might be convincing from Missy Elliott but not Madonna. “She’s Not Me” is fun and has little Donna Summer “Bad Girls” whistles and “Miles Away” sounds a bit like classic Madonna. But the overall feel of Candy is the complete lack of exuberance that made some of her past singles (“Music”, “Like a Prayer,” “Hung Up”, “Ray of Light”) so much fun.
Further in, “Spanish Lesson” is a jumbled mess, devoid of a hook, which is odd for Madonna because she’s usually so good at writing them. Lyrically the album is typical Madonna: Rhyming “waiting” with “hesitating” (again), the occasional dispassionate cliché and juvenile rhyming schemes abound. On “Voices” some semblance of intelligence returns: “Are you walking the dog?/ ‘Cause that dog isn’t new/ Are you out of control?/ Is that dog walking you?/ Haven’t you had enough, now your time is up?/Baby show me your hell.”
The R’n’B leanings of Hard Candy and cringe-worthy commands to “Get stupid!” come off as awkward at best which makes the CD feel overwhelmingly calculated and forced. At its core popular music is a fantasy art form. It’s the sound at the forefront of modern culture, the music used to sell sex, youth, glamour and in some cases, shampoo. On Hard Candy the fantasy falls dreadfully flat. Madonna will doubtless continue selling that fantasy, but only the most nondiscerning listener will think this compares to Ray of Light, for example — right down to the tasteless album cover.
Madonna cunningly liberated sex in pop music, but ironically she’s always been a bit too wooden and cold to pull off the sex kitten routine, which becomes sorely apparent on the very ordinary Hard Candy. Madonna needn’t have jumped on the Timbaland/lake bandwagon; she has nothing to prove because she’s fantastically classic already. Perhaps Madonna sums it up perfectly herself on “Give It 2 Me” when she sings, “You’re only here to win/ Get what they do/ They’d do it too/ If they were you/ You done it all before/ It ain’t nothing new.”
I find “4 Minutes” (her number one duet with Justin Timberlake) a most frustrating tune. With Madge’s Gwen Stefaniesque “tick tock/ tick tock” and the lyric “grab a boy and grab a girl,” “4 Minutes” has as much tension as her horrendous take on the ultra-horrendous “American Pie.” If you’re going to sing about saving the world, the song should explode with tension and determination… a four-minute countdown to annihilation, if you will. The song should kick some major ass like Prince’s “1999,” an Armageddon dance ditty full of anxiety and raw sexiness. But “4 Minutes” has already become a shampoo jingle. How sadly Mobyesque of our dear ol’ Madge.
Madonna’s new album, Hard Candy, is her last contracted album of new material for Warner Records and, save for “4 Minutes,” it really is quite a sweet thing. The music echoes her earlier dance pop albums Like a Virgin (from 1984) and Like a Prayer (1989) with a touch of her later experimental turns like Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000).
As usual Madge collaborates with producers and writers who sell records and have creative “now” energy. Her boys this time out are Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Nate “Danja” Hills and Kanye West. So how can the old girl go wrong?
The title track is totally cute with its obvious sex metaphors bouncing about all the drums and electro-fanciness. She sings, “I’ll be your one stop candy shop/ Lollipop/ Have some more.” Thank the gods. Unlike her indifferent lifeless vocals on 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor, Madonna sings this and all of these new tunes with a charming cheekiness. There’s happiness and whoop-ass confidence in her vocal takes.
“Give It to Me” is heavy, rich poppy goodness with throbbing beats and positive energy pounding away at you. It’s as if some long-lost Boney M track has been taken hostage by “Vogue” era Madonna.
“The Beat Goes On” is a fantastic duet with Kanye West (way better than “4 Minutes”). But my favourite track has to be “She’s Not Me.” It’s a fantastical piece of Chic-like disco zipping along to tacky house beats as Madge takes other pop tarts to task. “She started dyeing her hair and/ Wearing the same perfume as me/ She started reading my books/ And stealing my looks and lingerie.”
There’s something about this album that seems admirable. It’s an overview of a career and life like no other… the thoughts and beats of an icon. I’m sure Lourdes won’t even roll her eyes at this album.